Fashioning Responsibility: A Report on the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit

This year was the 10-year anniversary of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the tagline being, “10 years of rewriting fashion.” The bold tagline notwithstanding, fashion has yet to see a radical shift in terms of implementing fair labor practices and truly sustainable solutions. In the four years I’ve been going to the Summit, I’ve often left feeling dismayed by the gap between brand rhetoric and the reality of business-as-usual. This year felt somewhat different, however. Day 2 began with a rendition of Choir of Young Believers’ “Hollow Talk” (which will be very familiar to fans of Scandinavian noir series The Bridge) performed on stage by the Danish National Girls Choir. And instead of a “muted whisper of the things you feel”—the line concluding ”Hollow Talk”—the critical voices that followed spoke with great resonance.

Literally, women were going to be front and center this day when, among other highlights, the participants of the Youth Fashion Summit, hosted and coordinated by the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology, gave a rousing speech, exhorting the CEOs, politicians, brand managers, and designers in the room to give women working in the fashion industry their due—both in terms of fair and adequate wages and in terms of representation.

Most fashion consumers wouldn’t know that the women constructing their clothes often live and work in horrendous conditions, and most probably don’t often pause to consider the impact of ongoing sexism in fashion advertisements either. A salient point made by representatives of the Youth Fashion Summit was namely for brand managers to take active steps to break down the visual forms of gender oppression that circulate in the fashion media.

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The participants from the Youth Fashion Summit presenting their demands to the fashion industry at this year’s Fashion Summit.

A step was taken this year to include more minority voices in the discussions, although most panels were still primarily what Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic at the New York Times, called “manels,” referring to the fact that most panelists were male (and white, not perhaps coincidentally). It was a welcome surprise to see Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, from Bangladesh speaking on the panel about how to increase wages for factory workers in Asian countries.
Akter didn’t shy away from pointing out that whereas some positive changes have been implemented since the Rana Plaze disaster in 2013, fashion brands are only in Bangladesh for one reason: cheap, exploitative labor. Workers don’t receive the proper respect and dignity they deserve, and gender plays a huge role here, as Akter also pointed out in no uncertain terms.

As a recent report published by Asia Floor Wage (AFWA) and other NGOs makes clear, violence against women workers is rife throughout the fashion industry. Looking specifically at the H&M supply chain (but we should bear in mind that many brands operate concurrently in the same factories and the responsibility can’t necessarily be placed at the feet of just one company), the report exposes the wide spectrum of violence that women workers face: beatings, verbal abuse, and sexual assault.
Additionally, and crucially, the report also emphasizes that malnutrition and relentless working hours constitute violence as well, since the combination is hugely detrimental to the health and dignity of the workers. However, the tragic reality is that many of the large companies doing business in Asia are probably not even aware of what transpires on the factory floors where their goods are produced.

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Nazma Akter on stage at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.

Whereas women rarely hold managerial or supervisory positions in the supply chain, men continue to occupy primary positions of power in the fashion industry. The structuring of labor and profit along gendered lines is innate to the industry. Ever since textiles began to be manufactured on a large scale, most workers have been young women.
In the US, at the beginning of the 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell (who gave name to the Lowell System of production) staffed his new textile mills (the first of their kind in North America) with girls and women, aged 15–35. As Chaim M. Rosenberg notes in his biography of Lowell, “These young women had experience in weaving and spinning from home manufacturing and worked for cheaper wages than did male employees.”
Thus, gender inequality is at the root of large-scale modern textile manufacturing. It is our shared responsibility now, finally and much too late, to disavow the very foundation of the industry: cheap, gendered labor (hence the hashtag #humangender that the Youth Fashion Summit promoted in their performance).

I want to use this moment to reflect more thoroughly on the word “responsibility.” I heard it pronounced often from the stage at this year’s Summit, but what does it actually mean to assume responsibility, especially in relation to the chimera that is the fashion industry?

Among the most prominent modern thinkers, perhaps no one has grappled more with the concept of responsibility than the French philosopher and critic Jacques Derrida. The originator of deconstruction—a rigorous analytical method designed to uncover how language sustains power relations and vice versa—Derrida not only examined strenuously the words of others but also his own. As such, when he discovered that one of his closest friends (and of the most celebrated and controversial literary critics of the 20th century), Paul de Man, had written for a Nazi-controlled newspaper in occupied Belgium between 1940–42, he took to his typewriter almost immediately.
De Man had died from cancer in 1983, but the discovery of his wartime writings wasn’t made until 1988. Without going into detail about the entire controversy, I want instead to turn to Derrida’s mode of responding to this difficult information, which cast an entirely new light on his friendship with de Man (Derrida was Jewish). In a long essay, with the poetic title, “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War,” Derrida takes great pains to respond to the idea that his friend had once been a Nazi sympathizer:

“This thing will always be difficult to think and perhaps it will become more and more difficult. He, himself, he is dead, and yet, through the specters of memory and of the text, he lives among us and, as one says in French, il nous regarde—he looks at us, but also he is our concern, we have concerns regarding him more than ever without his being here.”

Like Derrida, we cannot ignore difficult information or revelations, of which there have been a constant stream over the last several decades in the fashion industry. For many of us, fashion is integral to who we are, to how we perceive the world and our own role in it. Fashion is not unlike a friend that we have come to depend upon to make us feel a certain way; we identify with shapes, colors, and, of course, specific brands. There is no denying it: We are what we wear—which is why we must take seriously the ramifications of what we choose to put on every day (insofar as that choice is truly our own—but I won’t get into that difficult question here).

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One of the talented weavers from The Sudaji Weaving Project in Northern Bali. The most sustainable clothes are clothes charged with time and pride. How can you call anything sustainable if it is produced in an unethical way?

We must not look away from the sometimes-unbelievable reality of supply chains; the humans suffering are our concern. We may then feel a sense of urgency, a quickening of the pulse as we speak words of solidarity and indignation. But we must further ask, What has prompted us to speak up in the first place? Is it a sense of guilt, of shame—the recognition that we’ve been complicit in the exploitation of thousands, perhaps millions, for decades, that we’ve pushed deep underground our sense that something was very wrong with the industry?

Before we can truly take responsibility, we must examine our motivation for wanting to do so. Since responsibility concerns the other—the garment worker in Bangladesh, for example—we can never know in advance where the act of taking responsibility will lead; but one thing is for certain, we can’t not respond in the face of what we now know to be the truth. As producers and consumers of fast fashion, we are all responsible for the low wages, the violence endured at the hands of factory managers, and the illnesses suffered.

Becoming a responsible participant in the fashion industry means, first of all, educating ourselves to the facts of what goes on (if we haven’t done so already), of finally staring the truth in the face. Brands, big and small, have become master weavers of vague sustainability statements intended to quash our nagging concerns before we complete our checkout, but surely we can hold ourselves to a higher standard (Positive Luxury seems to be on a right track, involving academics and industry professionals in evaluating the sustainability efforts of brands).
Yes, invariably, bad feelings follow in the wake of becoming responsible; we might not even feel like wearing certain items anymore. But it is imperative that we linger with that which is difficult and uncomfortable. However bad we feel, after all, is nothing compared to, say, the plight of Uygur Muslim women and men interred in Chinese work camps who have been forced to make sportswear ending up at prestigious American colleges, or the Cambodian seamstresses that regularly faint due to malnutrition and exhaustion while making sneakers for big brand-name companies.

At the Summit, a recurrent theme I heard certain CEOs and brand managers articulate in different ways was that one brand or company simply can’t do enough on their own; the industry is too complex for any one player to push for real change. If this is true, it certainly isn’t stopping these companies from claiming all sorts of victories on behalf of the workers whose labor they have been benefitting from for years. The trouble, of course, isn’t only that the industry has become so unbelievably massive but also that the companies themselves, in some regards, have lost track of their own operations. It is almost impossible for fashion companies to achieve a true level of transparency because they rely on subcontractors in various locales to keep production profitable (and enormously so) for their shareholders.
Why is it, for example, that large foreign companies operating in the province of Xinjiang haven’t put pressure on Chinese authorities to end the persecution of Uighur Muslims there? Recently, there have been calls for foreign governments and institutions to take action, and companies should be included in such demands, as they have the economic power to influence local authorities. After all, multinationals are duty-bearers, and they should meet their obligations accordingly.

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As the big fashion companies have apparently lost track of their operations, and hence have difficulties serving transparency to their consumers, maybe it is time to invest in garments made by small, up-and-coming sustainable fashion brands. (“Fold me jacket” by Susanne Guldager, alias La Femme Rousse)

The problem isn’t that companies are driven by evil intentions (they are not); rather, the prevailing concern is that, as Rosi Braidotti of Utrecht University points out, we are living in an epoch of advanced capitalism: “This is a ‘spinning machine’ that fabricates quantitative proliferations of objects, commodities and data which leave the power structures unchanged and unchallenged.” It seems entirely apt that capitalism should be compared to a “spinning machine”—even as Braidotti doesn’t explicitly mention the fashion industry, it is clearly a foremost example of how the status quo remains firmly in place as long as profit rules the day. Capitalism opposes “qualitative value” (workers’ rights and well-being), but a renewed authentic concern with responsibility—rather than counterfeit sustainability statements—has the potential to disrupt the mechanical and inhuman operations of the industry.

This is a time for radical demands. In my last post (Rerooting Veganism), I explained how the word “radical” means origin, but instead of going back to the origins of the fashion industry we need rather to sever the roots of those origins.
In today’s post, then, I want to add the following meaning of radical: the need for “great or extreme social or political change.” However, the overarching obstacle to implementing real and enduring change is that the fashion industry has come to resemble a rhizome, a massive system of rootstalks that can’t be traced back to a single origin anymore. As such, there isn’t just one solution or one obvious place to start fixing things. But the only way forward, as I see it, is by insisting on and repeating the demands for responsibility that were heard on stage at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit this year.

Fast fashion might seem colorful and fun, but it is entirely toxic. I hope that the Copenhagen Fashion Summit will start partnering with even more NGOs and educational organizations that are truly committed to change and that are not constrained by corporate interests. That would promote a venue for substantial and progressive discourse with no room for hollow talk.

Cover photo: Land art “5,000 Lost Soles” at Potato Head Beach Club, Bali, by liina klauss

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