Fashion Week: An industry that doesn’t want to change

A model walks down a catwalk

Words by Simone Cipriani

In this bold call to arms, Simone Cipriani, Conduit Member and Head and Founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative at the International Trade Centre, shares the enormous flaw at the heart of the fashion industry business model: the cost to people and the planet.

Today we have a new state, one without territories, formal institutions or army: the failed state of the international supply chain of fashion. This statement is a provocation, of course, but it conveys a message. Truly, the state of the fashion supply chain is a reality that affects the lives of a large number of people and that impacts heavily on our physical environment. It is an entity (what sociologists would call a “broad organisational field”) that manages important physical and human resources to produce goods within a linear consumption model. No circularity, no recycling, no re-use. What’s worse, there is no real respect for the people involved in these production processes.

This is part of a business model structured on the maximisation of profits for shareholders, which is obtained through:

  1. The minimisation of production costs, achieved by compressing the cost of two key inputs: people and materials;
  2. The maximisation of investment in image and marketing, to keep consumers anaesthetised;
  3. The extremely reduced time to market: products are carefully developed, through research and design, and then must be prototyped and produced in the shortest possible time.

This is why we have a large network of producers, organised in different layers, who are always available to work at any condition and with any given deadline. The people and natural resources involved in this process are only a factor of production, the cost of which must be kept at the lowest level possible. In terms of a business model, these are the key resources of this industry and they determine the foundation of its cost structure (the so-called Cost of Goods Sold, or CoGS, in accounting terms). The key partners are the production companies that allow the industry to mobilise these factors, within the given cost ceiling. Then there are designers, marketing people, and so on. The good functioning of the other elements of the business model such as revenue streams, channels of distribution and customer relationships depends on these foundations.

As long as the business model remains this way, real sustainability will always remain a mission impossible. Check the sustainability efforts of all major fashion players. How many disclose their whole supply chain, and the working conditions involved? How many offer a truly clear environmental impact assessment for their operations?

The culpability of fashion week

Yes, fashion has adopted the language of sustainability, but it is often a form of camouflage aimed at hiding the reality. An example of this is the core way in which brands makes themselves visible to the public: fashion week. These events are moments of both celebration and business, structured in an organisational form that pays no attention to sustainability. They run one after the other, forcing industry staff to travel frantically from here to there, while producers work in emergency-like conditions to have products ready for the shows. In the meantime, consumers are bombarded by a mountain of images and faces of influencers, very few of whom acknowledge how these goods are made or on their impact on people’s lives and on the natural world. All this, while our planet risks extinction.

Is this meaningful? Fashion week resembles the rites to celebrate Gods and Goddess in the late Roman Empire, when everything was tumbling down but people thought the old beliefs could save them. The main goddess of this fashion world is Medusa, who transforms those who stare at her into stone, so that they can no longer think nor act*. We need events that enable people to think and to see a future, not this useless carousel. We are quickly moving towards the extinction of life as we have known it up to now (this is the meaning of Anthropocene) and what are we doing about it? Business as usual. As I write, we are in another round of this mad (and maybe beautiful, captivating and useful for traditional business) carnival.

*While Medusa is also the image of a well-known fashion brand, I am not suggesting any direct link between my discourse and that brand.

An industry with the power to change?

Certainly, fashion week is enriched by green events and sustainability talks, which provide some superficial gloss. However, when you look closer at the main beneficiaries of these sideshows they are mainly – not exclusively, but mainly – people who represent pure and simple business as usual.

Fashion week is the real portrait of an industry that does not want to change. An industry that tries to exploit all it can until it becomes impossible to keep going. Soon, it could become too late to leave a decent planet and global society to our daughters and sons.

Can all this change? Yes. It simply depends on business leaders to do it. Let us start by leaving the discourse about consumers’ responsibility aside: consumers already do a lot; and they are willing to do much more. It is those in charge of big business who have to change. It is their responsibility to create a different business model, one that gives space to a different type of stakeholders. Along with these stakeholders, they must consider the conditions faced by workers in supply chains; of consumers; of the environment and the communities that live in it.

Is this so difficult? Maybe, but it is possible. A group of innovators and doers surrounds us. Together we are trying to change this industry. We need more executives and designers to join this movement. Come, let us work together.

About Simone Cipriani

Simone Cipriani founded and manages the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and of the World Trade Organization. He has made it his mission to build a more responsible and sustainable fashion industry, by transforming it into a vehicle of poverty reduction and of the empowerment of women, throughout the developing world. The Ethical Fashion Initiative enables artisans who live in marginalised conditions, in Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and DRC), the Caribbean (Haiti) and Asia (Afghanistan and also in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), to become regular suppliers of international fashion and lifestyle brands, thus reducing poverty and empowering large numbers of women artisans.

Simone is a member of the board of advisers of the Artisan Alliance of the Aspen Institute. He is also a member of the international scientific committee of the Italian magazine Religioni e Società. He co-chairs the secretariat (with a UNEP officer, Mr Stanley-Jones) of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.

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