Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Global Fashion Summit 2024: Lofty goals but limited progress

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To mark its 15-year anniversary, the Global Fashion Summit, held in Copenhagen from May 21-23, showcased ambitious themes and launched new initiatives. However, beneath the surface of its celebratory veneer, the Summit highlighted critical gaps in the fashion industry’s journey toward sustainability and inclusivity. This year’s theme, “Unlocking the Next Level,” aimed to chart a bold course for future actions, yet it became clear that the fashion industry still grapples with substantial challenges.

Some newly announced initiatives pointed to progress. For example, brands are exploring ways to make money without making new clothes, as part of a new initiative named The Fashion ReModel, announced on May 21 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Arc’teryx, Arket, Cos, H&M Group, Primark, Reformation, Weekday, and Zalando are among the first group of participants.

The Summit also introduced this year’s Fashion CEO Agenda 2024, a special-edition guide that outlines opportunities for executives to advance a net-positive fashion industry. Holly Syrett, vp of impact programs and sustainability at the non-profit Global Fashion Agenda, emphasized the urgent need for actionable strategies to achieve sustainability goals. “The CEO Agenda … highlights five unlocks,” Syrett said. They include operationalizing sustainability, redefining growth, activating consumers, prioritizing people and mobilizing based on materiality​​.

Despite these well-intentioned directives, the industry’s progress remains stymied by fundamental issues. For instance, the gender pay gap within European value chains, a glaring social inequity, remains inadequately addressed. For example, although the Italian fashion industry experienced 4% year-over-year growth to over €102 billion in 2023, according to the Confindustria Moda, Italy’s fashion sector gender pay gaps remain.

An upcoming data report by consultancy PwC looks to fuel change around gender pay gaps, starting with Italy and moving on to Portugal and France — the report will be released later this year. Italian PwC partner Erika Andreetta said, “Our goal is to work on the social part because, at the global level, … it will take more than 250 years to close the gender pay gap”​​. Andreetta’s research on the manufacturing industry in Italy revealed that, while environmental concerns are often at the forefront of initiatives, social issues like gender pay equity are often deprioritized.

In an encouraging development this week, a handful of major fashion companies, including Calvin Klein-owner PVH Corp. and H&M Group, signed landmark binding agreements to support higher wages in Cambodia. These bilateral commitments with the global union ensure companies’ sourcing practices don’t undercut efforts to raise salaries.

The Summit also introduced the Trailblazer Programme 2024, aimed at supporting early-stage innovators with equity investments and operational support. As stated in a prior interview with Tricia Carey, chief commercial officer at now-defunct renewable material company Renewcell, funding is gravely needed. Christina Iskov, head of innovation and development at the GFA, highlighted the potential of the Trailblazer Programme to drive transformation. However, the success of such programs hinges on multi-brand cooperation and adoption.

Another area of concern and concentration was the industry’s approach to new regulation and legislative frameworks, which are fast approaching this year. From global initiatives to country-specific laws, these rules are set to reshape how companies operate, forcing them to disclose detailed information about their supply chains and minimize their environmental impact.

Regulations significantly vary by country, adding complexity to compliance. They include the E.U.’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, enforceable from this July, and its Deforestation Regulation, enforceable from January 2025 — both will affect all brands selling in the E.U. There’s also the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was enforceable in 2022, affecting brands using specific materials in imports to the U.S. In a recent Glossy interview, James Rogers, vp of sustainability at Rothy’s, highlighted a positive view on regulation, saying, “We generally see any regulation as a good thing, as it’s leveling the playing field.”​​

Brands can expect many challenges, when it comes to the reporting of their sustainability and supply chain metrics. Pauline God, policy manager at Trustrace, said in a previous interview with Glossy that the first challenge is the number of regulations. “It’s been difficult and challenging for brands to know what to prioritize,” she said. 

For its part, the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive requires comprehensive risk assessments from brands and establishes enforceable grievance mechanisms. Mads Twomey-Madsen, vp of corporate communications and sustainability at Pandora, said in a previous interview for Glossy, “All companies will have to go through the requirements [of CSRD reporting] and figure out the data points that make sense for them to report on.”

Overall, the Summit’s reflection on the past 15 years exposed a disappointing reality. Despite increased awareness and advocacy around the industry’s largest issues, concrete progress has been limited. “It’s not the progress that was anticipated,” Syrett said, shining a light on the fact that the industry’s growth has not yet decoupled from its environmental and social impacts, an essential step towards sustainability​​.

The Summit did bring some positive developments. There was the introduction of the Next Gen Assembly 2024, which aims to empower young professionals to drive change. It explores themes like “How Can Fashion Value Economies of Wellbeing?”

However, the overarching critique lies in the gap between aspiration and action. The slow and cautious approach to rolling out new gender pay gap data, for example, delays the urgent actions needed to address such disparities​​.

Furthermore, the Summit’s celebratory tone was at odds with the industry’s ongoing struggles. The acknowledgment of past achievements often overshadowed the need for more aggressive and immediate actions. The ambitious goals set forth must be matched with tangible, measurable progress, a sentiment echoed by attendees. It seems regulation is the only persistent constant that will exert change on the industry.

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