“Social and environmental sustainability has come higher on the agenda in the textile and fashion industry during the pandemic.”- Kirsti Reitan Andersen

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Kirsti Reitan Andersen

Kirsti Reitan Andersen is a Post Doc at Copenhagen Business School. In her current work, she explores barriers and opportunities to change towards practicing sustainability in the textile and fashion industry, focusing on local production and alternative business models. Kirsti is engaged in the development of teaching material for business students and practitioners. She examines state-of-the-art and cutting-edge approaches to online and blended learning to both draw on existing material and platforms and develop new material. Kirsti has led a Scandinavian project that uses film, image, and text to bridge design and production across Norway, Sweden and Denmark to further business opportunities in the textile and fashion industry. She has extensive experience working with design and innovation, both in consultancy and research, drawing on her background in European Cultural Studies and applying and exploring ethnographic research methods in her work. In April 2012 she started on Ph.D. project at Copenhagen Business School Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (cbsCSR), as part of the Mistra Future Fashion Project. Kirsti is also an online course tutor at global learning platform Coursera where fashion sustainability enthusiasts can learn more about our fashion industry.

Recently Team Denim Focus Coordinator Pranta Biswas virtually talked with Ms Kirsti Reitan Andersen and discuss global sustainable fashion industry prospects. For our readers, the conversation is drafted below-  

Q. What is your observation about textiles and fashion sustainability?

A. Over the last years, social and environmental sustainability has luckily come higher on the agenda in the textile and fashion industry. The tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 as well as the industry’s challenges during the ongoing pandemic are examples of “events” that have made politicians and also the wider public aware of some of the fundamental problems of the industry. Today, the biggest problem of the industry, as I see it, is the speed with which and the amount of clothing being produced. This is at the heart of most other social and environmental responsibility challenges that the industry faces.

In spring 2020, a few weeks into the first lockdown in Denmark, the industry and employers’ association Dansk Fashion and Textile sent a letter to the Danish Government stating that “… if our goods aren’t sold now, they are worth nothing.” (DM&T, 2020). While this letter says something about the situation in Denmark, it is indicative of the industry’s operations at large. We have come to produce clothing at a speed where it is “out of fashion” in a matter of four to six weeks and therefore worth nothing. This is a massive problem that results in the exploitation of workers and incomprehensible quantities of textile waste.

In recent years we have seen more and more brands and other organizations within the industry talk about and invest in the circular economy – largely thanks to the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. While we see interesting examples of companies exploring and testing circular business models, e.g. the Dutch brand MUD Jeans and also brands working with elements of the circular model, e.g. extending the lifetime of clothing through repair and resale, most initiatives by far still operate as an add on or decoupled from the businesses primary operations (Stål and Corvellec, 2018).

Although the Copenhagen Fashion week is a small player in the global industry, it’s the recent introduction of the Sustainability Action Plan 2020-2023 is promising in terms of creating a framework for change towards practicing sustainability in the industry.

However, all taken together, although we see improvements in individual operations – e.g. water-saving technologies, the introduction of less harmful chemicals and responsible collaboration in the supply chain, and initiatives that can support more sustainable choices, the industry’s total negative impact currently keep increasing.

Q. Do you think a brand can be 100% sustainable in their business model?

A. This is a hard question to answer. However, if we think of regenerative farming, for example, and if this approach to fiber production is combined with careful design and use for circularity, then I think it should be possible. Also, while the industry’s current belief in material and technology (quick) fixes is far from enough to create a sustainable industry, the thinking and working with circular models set the ground for fundamentally rethinking the way the industry operates.

Q. What is your feedback about the covid situation in the area of fashion and textiles business?

A. I think the pandemic has simply highlighted and put out in the open the massive challenges that the industry faces, both with regards to its social and environmental (and economic for that matter) sustainability. E.g. the many canceled orders – pushing the problem to the next person in the supply chain. The massive amounts of textiles that ended up in landfills or incineration. Which also speaks to the complete lack of understanding of what it takes and how many resources go into actually producing these items.

Q. How can we more develop in fashion sustainability and digitalization?

A. I am not an expert in new digital technologies, but I can perhaps say a few things. There has been a lot of talk about blockchain over the last few years in a Danish / Western context – and the opportunity to track and create a full overview of your supply chain. However, very few companies to my knowledge actually work with blockchain and we still need to see how this can create value at any larger scale across the value chain (not to mention the environmental costs of running blockchains). However, I am really excited to see what new technologies can do in terms of setting the ground for more tailored, small scale and local production. In combination with old technologies. Currently, there is a complete lack of textile production knowledge in the Western world, not least Denmark – due to the last decades of outsourcing. Bringing production back means that we have to re-educate ourselves in textile production.

Q. Any special message you want to convey to our “Denim Focus” readers and the World Fashion industry?

A. I would like to emphasize that sustainable clothing is not boring. At all. While we completely need to rethink how we do things, we still need to create business models that can allow us to play with identities, dress beautiful and/or provocative, and for all needs. One place to start could be to actually create clothing that fits people – maybe then we would start using them as well.

Reference:

DM&T (2020). Organisationer i åbent brev til Christiansborg: Hjælp os med at redde tusindvis af arbejdspladser. Retrieved May 31st from: https://www.dmogt.dk/branchenyt/aabent-brev-til-folketinget-covid-19

Copenhagen Fashion Week (2020). Sustainability Action Plan 2020-2023. Retrieved May 31st from: https://copenhagenfashionweek.com/assets/pdf/CPHFW-SUSTAINABILITY-ACTION-PLAN-2020-2022.pdf

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