women When Livia Firth first set up environmental consultancy Eco-Age in 2007, the word ‘sustainability’ was not the buzzword it is today. “At the beginning, it was much more difficult; not many people were talking about the issue,” she tells Vogue. “The aim was to convince [brands] to start that journey. Now, everyone understands that if they still want a business in 10 years’ time, they have to think in a sustainable way.”
Firth is among a number of women who realised early on the importance of sustainability within the fashion industry, including Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, who set up the campaign group Fashion Revolution in 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,134 garment workers in Bangladesh.
“It makes sense to me that it’s a very female-led movement,” de Castro comments. “There’s a lot of women who perhaps felt [they were] not included in the mainstream fashion world. [The sustainability movement] felt like a genuine place where you were able to show your value and skills.” Somers continues: “As women, we see the injustices in the industry at every level, whether that’s in the boardroom [or] the lack of equality throughout the supply chain.”
Despite the progress made, the fashion industry still faces a vast range of challenges, both on the environmental and social fronts — as highlighted by the current coronavirus pandemic, which has left brands struggling to stay afloat and garment workers in the supply chain out of work. Here, six women at the forefront of fashion’s sustainability revolution reflect on how far the industry has come over the past decade, and the work that still lies ahead.
Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age and the Green Carpet Challenge
Livia Firth set up Eco-Age as a retailer-cum-consultancy in 2007, after her brother Nicola Giuggioli spotted a gap in the market. Now a major player in the sustainable fashion space, Eco-Age works with brands including MatchesFashion, Chopard and Reformation, and is behind the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, which encourages celebrities to wear sustainable fashion on the red carpet.
Have you always been interested in sustainability?
“Not in the way that you might imagine. Being from an older generation — I’m 50 — and having grown up in a period of me reapre-consumerism made lly look at things in a different way. I never thought about sustainability in terms of what the word means because I always consumed things slowly. Obviously when we opened Eco-Age, the word sustainability became more and more relevant in everyday life, to the point we are at today.”
What are the main changes you’ve seen in the past decade when it comes to fashion and sustainability?
“At the beginning, we moved very slowly. A lot of the changes have happened in the last couple of years. There’s [now] a deeper ownership of the issue. Until recently, consumers would have said, ‘Brands have to change’ or brands would say, ‘The government has to implement regulation.’ We have all realised that the responsibility lies in each one of us; this has been the biggest transformation.”
What do you hope will be the main changes in the fashion industry in the coming years?
“One [change I hope to see] is that what’s happening right now with Covid-19 will teach us to properly value garment workers and workers in factories. The biggest lesson we are learning right now is that we are all codependent on each other. The second hope [I have] is that technology won’t win too much. There is so much talk about transforming supply chains with machines and robotics, basically to take the human factor out of the equation. That is a huge mistake; we have to remember that you can’t erase an entire population and substitute it with machines in the name of profit.”
What are the key issues the fashion industry is facing, from a sustainability perspective? Have those issues changed since you originally launched the Copenhagen Fashion Summit?
“When we did the first Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2009, we launched a 10-year plan of action, and those areas [including CO2 emissions, waste, water usage and ethical labour practices] are actually still relevant. So a lot has not changed, although a lot has also changed. Topically, it’s still some of the same issues, but the innovation and the solutions have [moved forward]. Sustainability is not a philanthropic quest; it’s how you can future-proof your business model to become more resilient.”
You’ve moved the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to October because of the coronavirus pandemic. The theme is now ‘redesigning value’ — what was the thinking behind that?
“It’s an important discussion for [the] industry to have: what is the value of our industry in society, but also what is the value of a product? We’ve all been affected by the pandemic; our lives have [already] been changed dramatically. Will we just go back to producing four big collections a year and celebrating them as runway shows, or is it going to be a much leaner and more dynamic model going forward?”
How critical is the Copenhagen Fashion Summit as a forum for these discussions?
“It’s become increasingly important. We’ve really felt how this topic [of sustainability] has caught on in a big way, globally. Last year, we had 800 companies on a wait list because we had sold out. Even though I appreciate what Zoom can do, for events such as this, the in-person meetings [are useful]. If you want to create a revolution, it’s also about people feeling empowered by being with other people who are on the same path.”