Combining Fashion with Sustainability through Innovation
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Combining Fashion with Sustainability through Innovation

More and more, cheaper and cheaper: We Swiss buy five times as much clothing now as we did in 1950. Our rising standard of living and more frequent collection changeovers are among the factors that have turned clothing into a disposable. How can we reduce the environmental and social footprint of textiles along the entire value chain? This question was central to the 21st Lifefair Forum.

Swiss poet Gottfried Keller's 1874 novella "Kleider machen Leute" ("We are what we wear"), one of the best-known narratives in all German literature, is about a young journeyman tailor to whom clothes bring great prosperity and social standing. It makes no mention of any economic, social or environmental problems of clothing production, for who would have thought at the time that just 140 years later, Mr. & Mrs. Swiss would be so affluent that they would spend a mere 3 percent of their income on clothes – or that they would be able to afford to buy, and also to throw away, around 15 kilograms of clothing a year?

Clothes as Globally Produced Disposables

It was with this reference to literary history that Kuno Spirig, CEO of Lifefair, opened the 21st Lifefair Forum (see box) at Zurich's Forum St. Peter on December 14, at which some 250 managers and opinion-formers discussed the topic of "We are what we wear – fashion and sustainability: a contradiction?". Looking back makes everything clear: Since the time of Gottfried Keller, clothes have developed into globally produced disposables – and the consequences have been major challenges in many of their countries of origin: serious environmental pollution and precarious working conditions. The main function of clothing these days, apart from protecting us from the elements, is to promote an image. Not all consumers are apparently concerned about the environmental and social effects of textile production, because its global nature means that these are not directly visible to them. One indication of this can be found in the latest Credit Suisse Worry Barometer: Barely 15 percent of the Swiss public see the environment as a major cause for concern.

Innovative Business Model

Helmut Hälker, CEO of Remei AG, a pioneering Swiss company in the field of sustainable textile production, opened the discussion with an introductory presentation. Central to the innovative Remei AG activity is the production of textiles from fair trade organic cotton in a transparent process chain. From giving farmers in India and Tanzania training and advice on the supervised organic cultivation of cotton, through its processing to the finished product: Every production step meets stringent environmental and social requirements that are monitored by independent institutions. This business model delivers economic, health-related and agricultural benefits. The payment of organic premiums safeguards the survival of the producers, and as no costly chemicals are used in organic agriculture, there are no debt spirals. At the same time the farmers' health is not affected by pesticides, and the fertility of the soil – on which smallholders principally depend for their livelihoods – is secured in the long term. Helmut Hälker sees the cooperation with the partners as the main reason for the success of this sustainable business model: "From the producing farmers, through all the companies involved in the production chain, all the way to our customers: At every stage we build on long-term partnerships on a basis of equality."

Promoting Sustainable Textile Production

Helmut Hälker's presentation was followed by a panel discussion in which business leaders and technical experts talked about ways of reducing the social and environmental footprint of textiles in the face of benefit-focused consumers, and promoting sustainable clothing production.

At the beginning of the discussion, the question of whether consumers are prepared to pay for sustainable fashion was raised. Drawing on his own experience, Emanuel Büchlin, Coop's Head of Textile Purchasing, put the premium that consumers are prepared to pay over conventionally produced fashion at around 10-15 percent of the selling price. Unlike 20 years ago, he said, it is currently possible to sell an organic product at a price that represents a sensible cost/benefit ratio. Style expert Jeroen van Rooijen, Design Director at the van Rooijen Studio, said he discerned a change of direction in society away from fashion trends and towards individualism. Sustainability, he thought, was becoming a more important purchase criterion. His aim was to induce people to buy less clothing, but of higher quality: "Too much of what we have is the same, and that's why it stays in our wardrobes. It's high time we make it clear in our own minds how much a shirt is actually worth." Helmut Hälker is also in no doubt: textiles have to become better and more expensive, and we must reduce our consumption of them – because "wearing fashion means bearing responsibility."

But Dr. Alfred J. Beerli, CEO of AG, is sure that sustainability still has a lower priority as a buying criterion for textiles than price and quality. He thinks it's up to the authorities to harmonize these assessment criteria, setting an example with a sustainable procurement policy – for workwear, perhaps. And Christa Luginbühl, Head of the Berne Declaration's Clean Clothes Campaign, sees ultra-low wages in textile production as a gigantic problem: "Only 0.5 to 3 percent of what clothes are sold for is paid as wages to the people who make them" – which, she says, generally covers only between 20 and 50 percent of what is needed for living. She sees it as positive that various influential organizations – the International Labour Organization (ILO), for example, and the OECD – have this topic on their agendas.

What Can Switzerland Do?

How can fashion and sustainability be combined? What possibilities and opportunities present themselves for Switzerland and its economy?

One central outcome of the discussion was that Swiss companies can only influence environmental and social standards in textile production if they represent a high proportion of the suppliers' markets, so Swiss companies should concentrate on as few foreign suppliers as possible if they wish to be able to ensure that production is sustainable. In addition, the Swiss authorities should be more proactive in setting a good example, giving environmental and social criteria more weight in their procurement policies. We may take hope for the future from the fact that at the end of the discussion, several panel members saw Slow Fashion – with high-quality, high-priced products – as a new trend, and an alternative to disposable fashion.