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Covid-19 pandemic a chance for fashion industry to choose sustainability: Eva Kruse

Global Fashion Agenda’s CEO on how the pandemic is forcing the industry to rethink its business model and pushing consumers to make smarter, greener choices

Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse.
Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse.

“If the fashion industry can make purple the colour of the season, why can’t it make it cool to be green and conscious?” Eva Kruse, the globally recognized voice in sustainability, likes to ask hard questions. The good thing is, she has answers to offer.

After wrapping up the first digital version of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, one of the world's most influential sustainable fashion event, last week, Kruse, the chief executive officer of Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), a leadership forum for industry collaboration on sustainability in fashion, spoke to Mint about how the industry can come out of the covid-19 crisis and rebuild itself to become more sustainable and push consumers to make smarter, greener choices. Edited excerpts:

How do you view sustainable fashion?

It’s many things. There’s environmental sustainability, which has to do with fabrics, how they are made and their recyclability. There’s social sustainability about labour rights and working conditions, and how the staff throughout the value chain is treated. Then there’s the ethical side, which deals with animal welfare. And nowadays, when it comes to speaking about sustainability in a more consumer space, vintage has become a thing. Products that are pre-owned and pre-loved by somebody are finding more consumers. Though the product itself might not be sustainable in its true sense, but the fact that it is being reused makes it green in a way.

Is going sustainable too expensive?

It’s true when you look at fabrics. Some fabrics are still expensive to access sustainably and it also has to do with the fact that their sheer volume is less. That’s why if, for instance, H&M decides to replace their cotton with organic cotton in their collection, they would absorb all the organic cotton the world has. The volume of sustainable material is smaller. So I think it’s a matter of how fast we move forward. The bigger the ask, the bigger the volumes will become and the prices will drop.

The covid-19 crisis has pushed people across the world to reassess their values and demand social, economic and environmental change. How is the fashion industry adapting to this new reality?

I think many were forced to adapt by having to close their shops, pause a lot of orders, even change the whole structure of their collection systems for the rest of the year. I think a lot of companies have also “appreciated”—maybe that’s too strong or too positive a word—but they have taken it in with a sense of opportunity. They are trying to rebuild or rethink how their business is structured. I think there are some interesting conversations coming out of this situation: how do we not just rebuild everything as they were but how do we create something better that will make us more resilient towards future crisis? This pandemic is definitely not the last crisis we are facing, given the damage we have already done to the environment.

What do companies need to be resilient?

The companies that have the closest relationship with their suppliers and the least fragmented supply chain have come out as the strongest from this crisis. And they were the most agile when it came to having a dialogue with their manufacturers about what can be done about the dead stock, both with the fabrics that haven’t been used and the produced garments that couldn’t be sold because of the lockdown. The fashion industry will have to adapt to a world where we are a little more cautious and produce less. We have been producing at a massive pace and volume, where at least 30% of what’s produced never hits the shelf and ends up in the landfill.

How do you resolve inventory crisis?

Well, it’s an issue we have seen across the industry, from the luxury brands to fast fashion chains. Dead or unutilized stock has been the biggest issue of the industry for a long time. Now, more than ever, with shops closed. There are several ways that these produced garments can be used. Some can be pushed to the next season. Even if a brand has come up with a collection of floral dresses this year, they can easily use them for next summer. The customer has anyway not seen the collection. We are also engaged in conversations about looking at remaking the already produced item and turning them into something else. This would be mean reskilling garment workers to become better at redesigning and remaking already made clothes. Then there’s the option of marking them down or put them out at reselling platform.

The fashion industry will have to adapt to a world where we are a little more cautious and produce less. We have been producing at a massive pace and volume, where at least 30% of what’s produced never hits the shelf and ends up in the landfill

We, as consumers, have gotten used to sales and discounts, which also means we buy more. When I was growing up, there used to be sales in January and one in August. Honestly, that’s where we should get back to. Today, we buy 60% more than what we did 15 years ago. When the covid crisis hit, companies’ natural response was to offer sales. It fuels an unhealthy rhythm of overconsumption. Fashion has become very wasteful. It’s just become a commodity which we take, use for show and throw as if it’s trash. We are disregarding the effort, the talent that has gone into a product. Those Friday sales and all of those concepts—it’s the devil who created them. They are just fuelling our consumption. It’s encouraging our greed.

Do you really think we can make it?

Yeah. But I’m an optimist at heart (laughs). The thing is there’s so much innovation, so many solutions. I know it is all very expensive and complicated and you got to do it with all your heart and energy, but it’s just so rewarding for the consumers as well as the people working for the brand.

But I have to say this: even if we implement all of the technology and knowledge that we have today, it will not bring us to the finish line if we don’t address the growth issue. The trajectory we were on meant we were going to be 81% by 2030 in volumes. That’s too much for the planet. Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink our choices and what kind of future we want to build.

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