How do we make the fashion industry more sustainable?
This is the second blog post in the 4-part series of transitioning the fashion industry, in where we will discuss how the fashion industry can be made more sustainable. Last post, we characterised the current status of the fashion industry, how it is developing, and the environmental impacts it is causing. Furthermore, we highlighted how we could support the change. In the following blog post, we will begin by problematising the fashion industry and argue for why it should be changed. Secondly, we will suggest a visionary strategy to make a transition of the fashion industry. In order to explain how this could be done, we will use the theoretical concept of Transition Management to organise a strategy, which can facilitate the transition.
Why is the current model of the fashion industry problematic?
The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world and has a huge environmental impact on water, air and biodiversity, and a huge societal impact on people working in the fashion industry’s supply chain. The environmental impacts is seen in the enormous consumption of water in both conventional and more sustainable production methods, and in the carbon emissions. Furthermore, with such a high production and consumption, textile waste is huge. Too much clothes are sent to incineration even though they could be upcycled. In Sweden, each person throw out 7,5 kg of textiles each year, either as waste for incineration or to third world country purposes, which ruins their market for clothes . Regarding the social sustainability aspects, and as we have described in the previous blog post, the fashion industry can be described via the trends of the fast fashion industry, where companies are producing up to 16 collections a year, pushing the customer to buy more and more, and very often it is cheap and low quality clothes, often produced under poor work conditions. Consequently, the industry is very problematic for of its actors in the supply chain, namely the workers from production to manufacturing. These poor working conditions, which can also be described as the social sustainability problems, is mainly reflected in the high number of accidents of child labour and suppressed women. Furthermore, it has been called slavery by several organisations such as Free2Work and CNN Freedom Project, and also by spokesperson in the fashion industry, Safia Minney, with her latest book and campaign “Slavery of Fashion” .
However, since the accident at Rana Plaza many organisations have been established trying to make up for the losses. Also, many companies and consumers want to change or has the ambition to change, but does not know how. Nevertheless, the industry in general, being trends and politics, have not made it generally fashionable to be sustainable. Therefore the fashion industry and its actors has to move in a more sustainable direction that does not harm future generations, which the Brundtland report defines as Sustainable Development .
How do we change the fashion industry?
So in order to change the footprint for a piece of clothes, a co-coordinated effort must be made: Materials must be rethought, production methods must be optimised, designers need to choose more sustainable materials, companies need to make demands for the sake of the environment and on behalf of the consumer, and the consumer needs to increase their demands to how companies produce their clothes and also change their own consumption patterns.If these changes can be achieved, the whole system can be changed, and the environmental impact will be heavily reduced. As mentioned previously, the fashion industry will always involve consumption, because it is inscribed to make people buy new clothes, but if you can make the consumption less environmentally damaging, a system that does not harm future generations can be achieved. But it requires a collective action plan, because it is everybody’s responsibility.
Though, only a few partnerships have been made across the industry, because it is very competitive, where everybody wants to be unique and therefore nobody wants to share their knowledge. However, some companies have started to think more sustainable and even some are acting sustainably. Yet, in order to make a transition of the whole fashion industry, everybody needs not only to work together, but to work transdisciplinary. We have to design with everybody from production, sewing, companies, designing, customers, second hand shops, NGOs, incineration plants, as well as managers, middle managers and regular employees. And it does not stop here, because the textile industry overlaps with other industries such as the water- and electricity industry.
Seen from the consumers’ perspective, some surveys shows that consumers are asking for sustainable clothes , but even though customers might ask for sustainability, they still buy fast fashion products. This might have something to do with the fact that people often say one thing but does another.
What is Transition Management about?
In order to manage this complexity a way to organise a strategy, which will facilitate the system to a transition, is to use the theoretical concept of Transition Management. The reason why transition management is a great tool in sustainable transition is because it “has the prospect of resulting in three key outcomes”  which is; a sense of direction, an impulse for local change, and collective empowerment. “The Transition Management approach proposes six principles for influencing transitions”, where the most essential for changing the fashion industry is aiming ”for system innovation in small but radical steps”, co-creation, and facilitation of ”social and institutional learning”  in order to create cooperation across the industry. These principles are operationalised through four types of interventions – namely orienting, activating, agenda setting and reflecting, which can be put into a framework consisting of the following seven steps:
- Setting the scene
- Exploring local dynamics
- Framing the transition challenge
- Reconnecting long and short term
- Engaging and anchoring
- Getting into action
The authors of the theoretical concept of Transition Management put much emphasis on ‘transition arena’ that lies within step 1 ‘setting the scene’, because it contains all four interventions. Therefore, this analysis will do the same. The ‘transition arena’ can be summarised as done in the following paragraph:
“The transition arena is a temporary setting that provides an informal and well-structured space to a small group of change agents from diverse backgrounds (businesses, government, research institutes, NGOs, and citizens). The group engages in a series of meetings, jointly elaborates a transition challenge, drafts a long-term vision, and develops transition pathways to realise this vision. The transition arena gathers a group of ambassadors inspired to go beyond current interests and daily routines. Together, they develop a shared transition agenda, which provides a starting point for involving a wider group and instigating new activities, networks and collaborations.” 
In the following section, a transition strategy for the fashion industry is made based on the problems the fashion industry have, as mentioned in the beginning.
How can Transition Management be used to organise a strategy, which changes the fashion industry?
In order to ‘set the scene’, a transition team is formed consisting of us, the authors behind this blog, The Fashion Footprint. Also, a person having more agencies within the fashion industry would be preferable as well. The ‘process design’ is based on the seven-step framework, which will be elaborated in the following.
In ‘exploring the local dynamics’, a system and actor analysis has been made. In order to ensure a team with agency, the ‘frontrunners’ should consist of actors from micro, meso and micro level (as known from the Multi-Level Perspective by Geel) and have different backgrounds. The following list is a list of the ‘frontrunners’ consisting of actors compiled in relation to their power of agency:
- Fashion network organisations such as Danish Fashion Institute (and NICE project), DM&T, Lifestyle & Design Cluster, WEAR Denmark.
- NGO’s such as Clean Clothes Apparel.
- Sustainable frontrunners: McArthur Foundation and Cradle to Cradle Denmark.
- Other organisation such as Euratex (European textile labelling organisation).
- General industry representatives such as Dansk Erhverv.
- Innovation network such as Teknologisk Institut.
- Political institutions such as Danish Ministry of Environment and Food.
- Fashion company representatives from for example H&M, Bestseller, Neutral, AMOV, Vigga.
- Representatives from other industries such as Energinet, De Forenede Dampvaskerier, (more industries should be represented).
- Educational representatives such as KEA, KADK, Kolding Designskole.
From ‘Framing the Transition Challenge’ to ‘Getting Into Action’
In order to create ownership, engagement and anchoring among the frontrunners, a participatory design methodology is applied in ‘problem structuring’, ‘vision building’ and in ‘back casting the envisioning’. It is very important that defining the vision is not done by the transition team alone, but that it is co-designed with the coalition of frontrunners. The same regards to the rest of the steps in the Transition Management framework up until ‘getting into action’. Therefore, it is essential for the success of the transition to use the participatory design methods, where the transition team is the facilitators, who makes sure that the ‘transition challenge’ is framed, so that the starting point and target is shared among the frontrunners. A possible way to frame the same target point is arranging a conference like this TedX Copenhagen, where Eva Kruse talks about how the world can be changed through fashion, or a conference like Copenhagen Fashion Summit – a conference on sustainable fashion.
As we would be the designers of the transition and of the new socio technical system, we will also choose who is included and who is excluded in the system. This process of inclusion and exclusion will be an intervention in itself, and just as difficult, because the frontrunners we choose will determine the transition and the outcome of such.
As we have highlighted throughout this second blog post, transitions based on the concept of Transition Management, depends very much on the process of envisioning and the people enrolled as the frontrunners, because they define the vision, transition and outcome of such. So in the case of the fashion industry, we have suggested to gather specific actors having a say and who currently has strong representation, agency and influence in the fashion industry. However, all actors will have different agendas and different matters of concern, which transition management does not take into account. Therefore, the next blog post will address this issue and we will here suggest another approach to make the fashion industry more sustainable by using the theoretical framework of ‘arenas of development’.
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Main author of this post: Stine Kolding
Second author of this post: Dorte Mindegaard
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