Real Leaders

How to Run a Business Like  the World’s Most Sustainable  Fashion Event

Forget five-year business plans that focus entirely on financial metrics — sustainability action plans are the next big thing. The world of high fashion is usually associated with frivolous, high-end excess, but Copenhagen Fashion Week has set out to change all that. 

Led by CEO Cecilie Thorsmark and a host of strategic partners, the landmark, annual Scandinavian fashion event has launched a sustainability action plan to reduce negative impacts in the world of fashion and accelerate change within the industry. Even if you’re a wardrobe-challenged CEO who struggles each day with what socks to wear, there are business lessons from Copenhagen that go beyond looking stylish.

As one of the largest consumer industries worldwide, the fashion industry is expected to grow by 81 percent by 2030 to meet the demands of a growing population and rising middle classes, according to the Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group. At the same time, we are exceeding planetary boundaries, with the remaining time-frame for averting the devastating climate change only a decade away, according to some experts. It’s a global phenomenon that calls for all industry players to be accountable for their actions and to change the way business is done.

“Fashion weeks are a platform where new visions, trends, and talents emerge, and they hold tremendous potential to drive change. If we dare to be bold, we can change how business is done.” — Cecilie Thorsmark

After a year-long strategic development process, Copenhagen Fashion Week unveiled an action plan early this year that will reduce the event’s carbon footprint by 50 percent and tackle broader issues around the designers they work with and the audiences they attract. 

“The fashion industry stresses our planet and livelihoods,” explains Thorsmark. “With the depletion of natural resources, extensive use of water, energy, chemicals, and waste generation, we have reached a stage where transformation is urgently needed. Put simply: The status quo must change.”

Thorsmark believes that all fashion industry players — including fashion weeks — must be accountable for their actions. Beyond the pages of glossy fashion magazines, fashion weeks are a symbolic, cultural focal point of the fashion world. For this reason, Thorsmark thinks they hold immense power to influence the behavior of others. “They are a platform where new visions, trends, and talents emerge, and they hold tremendous potential to drive change. If we dare to be bold, we can change how business is done,” she says.

The rules they have put in place may apply to fashion, but can equally be applied to any business with a supply chain. From January 2023, all brands applying for a show or presentation during Copenhagen Fashion Week must meet minimum sustainability requirements to participate in the official show schedule. Participants must also comply with 17 minimum standards, such as pledging not to destroy unsold clothes; using at least 50 percent certified, organic, upcycled or recycled textiles in all collections; and using only sustainable packaging and having zero-waste set designs for their shows. Ironically, Copenhagen Fashion Week will benefit from a sustainability rebranding exercise by asking suppliers to comply with their vision. 

But, behind the stage curtain, the event team is equally driven. With a motto of “Reduce, innovate, accelerate,” they have put measures in place to become the global leader in responsible fashion shows. In 2019, Thorsmark’s team measured the carbon emissions from their international guests’ flights and hotel accommodations, their official opening dinner, outdoor marketing, press busses (including the  food and beverages on each bus), staff uniforms, and logo stickers for car fleets. They arrived at a figure of 45 tons of CO² emissions, which they offset through Danish company, RenSti. 

Fashion ramp models are taught exhaustive techniques on how to walk on the catwalk. With Fashion Week’s dedication to preserving the environment, perhaps “walk lightly” can now be added to the list. If a fashion event can lead the way on sustainability, then other industries can surely follow.

“As an industry event of considerable size and impact, we are obligated to use our voice to support radical transformation and visionary minds,” says Thorsmark. “It’s not an issue that can be solved with a simple flick of the wrist, but we can move from being a source of inspiration and a conversation starter to a facilitator
of action.”

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