Selling Sustainability: How Copenhagen’s Annual Summit Recycled Its Own Message

COPENHAGEN — The annual Global Fashion Summit staged its 15th forum last week, but it wasn’t celebrated with pomp and frills because there’s nothing to celebrate since the fashion industry is still not on track to meet its 2030 and 2050 targets.

Kering returned as the fair’s sponsor after LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton stepped in last year to cite their sustainability initiatives, bringing out Antoine Arnault and Jonathan Anderson to do so.

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More than 1,000 attendees and 110 speakers representing 20 countries gathered in Copenhagen at this year’s event, which was called “‘Unlocking the Next Level.” Last year, 138 speakers took to the stage and 28 countries were present.

Circularity Takes Center Stage

Circularity was the word on everyone’s lips at the summit, even Denmark’s newly appointed queen, Queen Mary of Denmark, patron of Global Fashion Agenda and the summit.

“I’m the proud mother of four children, two boys and two girls. Today, Isabella and Josephine can fit many of my clothes and to my horror, my shoes; I’m a bit of a shoe girl,” she said addressing a full house at the Copenhagen Concert Hall.

Queen Mary of Denmark
Queen Mary of Denmark

“My children are far from the only ones borrowing and then swapping clothes, frequenting vintage stores and flea markets. New clothing is no longer seen in opposition to used clothing, along with progress in sustainable production, the development of new materials and textiles,  and scaling of textile recycling. This bodes well for circularity,” she added, re-wearing items from her own wardrobe: a wrap blouse from Jesper Høvring, a floral print skirt and Gianvito Rossi yellow suede pumps.

Also during the summit, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation laid out a new idea on one of the smaller stages: decoupling revenue from production and resources. The foundation suggested that instead of brands tapping into new sustainable initiatives, they should think about repair, rental, resale and remaking.

Daphne Seybold, co-chief executive officer and chief marketing officer of Sky High Farm Universe, attended the summit for the first time as a means of education. But despite the industry’s resounding acknowledgement that adoption of change is both an urgent practical and moral obligation, she felt it was still not being met with “the proportionate responsiveness.”

“We [Sky High Farm Universe] manufacture our garments primarily through vintage, deadstock fabrics, clothing and accessories and upcycled materials. We believe the most sustainable products are the ones that already exist,” she said.

The  Sky High Farm Universe business model is designed to give 50 percent of its profits to Sky High Farm, to regenerative farmers unseen by the system that do not benefit from the subsidies granted to the agro-industrial complex.

Ahead of profitability, the business has donated a total of $700,000 for the farm’s work in two years.

Sharing Is Caring

After 15 consecutive summits, it’s hard for anything new to come out from businesses. This year’s affair homed in on maintaining the efforts toward sustainability.

That same message is being reiterated and shared by Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of Ganni, in a new book published by Penguin, “The Ganni Playbook,” in collaboration with sustainability writer Brooke Roberts Islam.

“We wanted to share our perspective on responsibility, but to get to that point, we had to provide a bit of background on Ganni, the business and the brand we built. The book provides insights into how we went about building our sustainability strategy, the roads we took to get there, the tools and methodologies we developed along the way, and the priorities and sacrifices we made along the way,” Reffstrup said in an interview.

Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of Ganni
Nicolaj Reffstrup

The book encourages other businesses to copy and improve on what Reffstrup and his team have achieved so far. He admits that “sustainability is going to cost you,” no matter how it is approached and that the main focus of Ganni for the next three years is diving into its carbon strategy.

Sharing his resources was evident at the fall 2024 edition of Copenhagen Fashion Week, where Ganni dropped out of the season to make space for an exhibition titled “Future, Talent, Fabrics” that highlighted the city’s young talent, such as Nicklas Skovgaard, Amalie Røge Hove, Alectra Rothschild, Sarah Stem, Sahar Jamili, Jens Ole Árnason and Sisse Bjerre.

“I’ve always believed in the power of open sourcing knowledge. In fashion, the challenges we face are enormous, and progress demands collective action. Writing this book was my way of contributing to that collective effort,” said Reffstrup, applauding his tech background, where sharing code and collaborative learning were ingrained in him and shaped his approach to business.

Big, Small Brands Strive for a Slower Future

At a summit of such a size, it’s easier for the fashion giants to talk about their advances.

The H&M Group, for example, is testing out circularity through the resale platform Sellpy.

“In 2023, we achieved an absolute Scope 1 and 2 GHG emission reduction by 24 percent and 22 percent reduction in Scope 3 emissions from our 2019 baseline,” said Adam Karlsson, chief financial officer at the Swedish retailer.

Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability and institutional affairs officer at Kering.
Marie-Claire Daveu

“Last year, Kering committed to reduce our absolute emissions by 40 percent for Scopes 1, 2 and 3 by 2035. To me, speaking of absolute value is the right and necessary move if we want to tackle the challenges of our century,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability and institutional affairs officer at Kering.

Her take on modern luxury translates to slow luxury, combining craftsmanship with sustainable innovations.

“If the fashion industry as a whole aligned with the philosophy of slow luxury to respect resources, artisanry and longevity it would fundamentally decelerate the speed and growth of fashion,” said Daveu.

Smaller brands such as Danish label Cecilie Bahnsen are taking the path to slow fashion seriously. The designer has introduced a comprehensive care guide that comes with each item sold to give clients the tools and knowledge needed to extend the life of their garments.

The brand has also launched a made-to-order service, allowing it to create slower and more responsibly, taking inspiration from the traditions of couture and upholding a standard when it comes to craftsmanship.

Grandeur Does Not Equal Greatness

In its grandeur, the summit has become a performance show that everybody wants a lead role in — during the opening ceremony, there was dancing and singing, leaving the audience somewhat baffled as to whether they were attending a kumbaya convention or a problem-solving summit for an industry where clothing production has risen by 50 percent.

Though real change for the planet is far away still and the summit will continue next year — accountability and collaboration have become key pillars for brands participating — some attendees felt the messaging is being trapped inside the walls of the Copenhagen Concert Hall and needed to reach a wider audience.

“I would love to see the summit streamed publicly and made available to everyone, otherwise it’s just existing in a comfortable echo chamber. We can’t expect the world at large to care if they’re being excluded from the conversation and are uneducated on what’s at stake,” said Seybold.

Bahnsen, like her happy dresses, remains hopeful about the future.

“I left the summit feeling very inspired about the possibility of collaboration,” she said.

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