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Expert says fashion weeks represent an industry unwilling to change

by | Feb 6, 2020

As the new season of fashion weeks kicks off, we publish an opinion by head of Ethical fashion Initiative, Simone Cipriani, who believes that fashion weeks represent an industry unwilling to change. He says it is an industry that will exploit all that it can until it will be impossible to continue business. Here, Cipriani explains why he believes this:

Today we have a new state, one without territories, formal institutions or army: the failed state of the international fashion supply chain. This statement is provocative, of course, but by making it, I intend to convey a strong message: the current state of the fashion supply chain affects the lives of a large number of people and impacts heavily on our physical environment. It is an entity – what sociologists would call the “broad organisational field” – that manages important physical and human resources to produce goods within a linear consumption model. No circularity, no recycling, no re-use. Even worse, there is no real respect for people involved in these production processes.

This is part of a business model structured on the maximisation of profits for shareholders, which is obtained through:

  • Minimising of production costs, achieved by compressing the cost of two key inputs: people and materials;
  • Maximising investment through image and marketing;
  • Dramatically reducing time to market: products are carefully developed, through research and design,  which must then be prototyped and produced as quickly as possible.

This is why we have a large network of producers, organised in different layers, who are always available to work no matter what conditions of employment and with any given deadline. The people and the planet’s natural resources involved are no more than a mere factor of production, whose cost must be kept to a minimum. In terms of business model, these are the key resources of this industry and they determine the foundation of its cost structure (the so-called Cost of Goods Sold, or CoGS, in accounting terms). The key partners are the production companies that allow the industry to mobilise these factors, within the given cost ceiling. Then there are designers, marketing people and so on. The functioning of the other elements of the business model such as revenue streams, channels of distribution, customer relationships, etc. depends on these foundations.

As long as the business model remains this way, real sustainability will remain impossible. Look at the sustainability efforts of all major fashion players. How many disclose their whole supply chain and inner working conditions? How many offer a truly clear and transparent environmental impact assessment of their operations?

Yes, fashion has adopted the language of sustainability and green stuff, but it is often a form of camouflage aimed at hiding the reality. An example of this smokescreen is fashion weeks. These displays are the way in which brands are celebrated and publicised, and the way in which they conduct part of their business. Their organisational structure is not sustainable. They run one after the other, forcing industry staff to travel frantically from here to there across the globe, while producers work in emergency-like conditions to have garments show-ready. In the meantime, consumers are bombarded by a mountain of images and faces of influencers, who do not speak about how garments are made or about their impact on people’s lives and on the planet. All this, while our planet risks extinction. Is this meaningful?

Instead of fashion weeks, what we need are events that enable people to think, to imagine a future, not this useless carousel. We are quickly moving towards the extinction of life as we have known it up to now.  What are we doing about this crisis? Business as usual. As I write, we are in another round of this mad (maybe beautiful, eye-captivating and useful for traditional business) carnival.

Most fashion weeks are accompanied by green events and sustainability talks, which provide some superficial gloss. But if you ask who the main beneficiaries or protagonists of these sideshows are you’ll find that they are mainly (not exclusively, but mainly) people who represent business-as-usual.

Fashion weeks are a true representation of an industry that does not want to change; of an industry that exploits all that it can until it will be impossible to continue business. Soon, it will be too late to leave a decent planet and global society to our daughters and sons.

Can all this change? Yes. But it requires business leaders to change. Let us leave consumers out of the discussion for now: consumers already do a lot; and they are willing to do much more. It is those in charge of big business who have to change. It is their responsibility to create a different business model, one that gives space to a different type of stakeholder. Along with these stakeholders, they must consider the conditions in which workers in supply chains of labour, of consumers, of the environment and the communities we all live in.

Is it difficult? Is it very tough? Maybe. But it is possible. A group of innovators and doers surrounds us. Together we are trying to change this industry. We need more executives and designers to join this movement. Come, let us work together.

  • Simone is the Head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre and oversees the promotion of trade and incubation of creative micro-enterprises within marginalised communities on the African continent, and in Afghanistan and Haiti. 
  • Images: Main from Brunel Johnson / Unsplash and below was supplied

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