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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Sustainable fashion is possible, but not at the pace we’re going

Eva Kruse is the world leader in eco-friendly clothing. She thinks people can change, but need to move much faster than ever before.

Eva Kruse thought we would have made more progress by now. The sustainable fashion leader – an understatement, really: Kruse is more like the godmother of the movement – was in Sydney this month and told The Australian Financial Review that the most pressing issue her industry has to contend with is the pace of change.

Things are simply not moving fast enough.

“I have been championing this agenda for almost two decades and I am still surprised at how slow it is,” she says. “Conversation stays at the ‘nice to have’ level. We like to do the little things we can do, within our parameters, to stay comfortable.”

It is a straightforward but damning statement on the state of an industry that is known to be a significant polluter.

Fashion uses large amounts of water, land, chemicals and energy, as well as human labour. It relies heavily on plastic (more than half of all clothing is made from synthetic fibres, usually polyester-based) and, with profit driving businesses, it has been resistant to change.

Kruse, a native Dane who now calls London home, is adamant that change must happen, and the self-described “stubborn optimist” believes it can be done.

“There is a mechanism in fashion that we have created for ourselves, where we are constantly chasing the new,” she says. “During COVID-19 there was a movement to rewire the industry, to produce less, to have fewer fashion weeks, to have a longer shelf life for products.

“That disappeared when borders opened. But the questions remain. Why do we drop spring products in winter and then discount the winter products? It’s bad for business! We need products for a reason, not a season.”

Kruse has been at this for a long time. A former magazine editor and television host, she founded Copenhagen Fashion Week in 2005, which has become the world leader in sustainable fashion (Princess Mary is the Summit’s patron). Kruse then founded Copenhagen Fashion Summit (now known as the Global Fashion Summit) and Global Fashion Agenda in 2009 and worked with the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals for businesses.

Coming from the fashion industry, Kruse is not afraid to rock the boat: she has called on giants such as Kering and fast fashion company H&M to up the ante and enact better practices.

Kruse left the Global Fashion Agenda in 2021 and is now chief global engagement officer at Pangaia, a material sciences company that uses its innovative fabrics in loungewear and activewear, selling them to fund research into more sustainable practices (especially raw materials).

Tax to change the system

She believes that sustainable fashion is not a philosophy but a business model, one that will be as valuable to shareholders as to the planet.

And to do that, Kruse says we need legislation and tax to change the system.

“We can do a lot as an industry, but ultimately we need legislation to step in,” she says. “There is at maximum, 50 per cent of the fashion industry, that is moving in this space. And most of those players are doing business as usual, and making only very small amounts of change.”

At Global Fashion Agenda, she approached the European Union with a question: “Would it be possible to legislate when [fashion goes] on sale? I appreciate free market powers, but we need to question these things.

“Maybe it’s a question of putting a limit on how cheap products can actually be. If things are cheaper and cheaper then of course you have no respect for them. They become disposable for the consumer, and the industry creates more and more.”

“There is no magic wand we can swing to solve the climate crisis, but without a doubt, heavily taxing carbon will do the most. If you hit people in their wallets, you will make impact.”

‘The consumer shouldn’t be taxed’

Though she believes that it’s important for consumers to “hurt a little bit”, Kruse is hesitant to place the burden on individual shoulders.

“The consumer shouldn’t be taxed, it’s the provider, the producer [who should be],” she says.

“So much talk of sustainable fashion is directed to the consumer; but there is only so much a consumer can really do. You won’t see the consumer standing in a store stamping their feet asking for change. They want the product first: something to wear out, something that looks good.”

Convenience and price are important, she adds, with “sustainability way down the list of priorities” for most people.

“So it belongs to the industry to make a better product. And those that are unwilling need to be pressured by legislation.”

Kruse herself is a fashion lover. She is wearing Alexander McQueen heels (bought on Vestiaire Collective, a resale site) and activewear from Pangaia. She understands that fashion is, for many of us, spirited and frivolous.

“We shouldn’t take away that fashion is fun, creative, an industry full of ingenuity,” she says. “It should be exciting. It’s a cultural indicator, it tells the story of who we are. It’s not the newness in itself that’s wrong, it’s how much newness there is.”

The frustratingly slow pace of change is at odds with the ever-faster growth of most fashion companies, she says.

‘Constant pursuit of growth’

“The elephant in the room is the constant pursuit of growth, which is fundamentally ingrained in our society,” she says. “Success means growth.”

She understands the economic reality at play.

“For publicly traded companies, there are shareholders, I get that,” she says. “For any business, there is the need to pay your staff. But we need to have a discussion about what creates value, and it doesn’t necessarily have to mean volume.”

Kruse wants to create a more circular industry, in which “every product has value”.

It’s through this approach, she says, that we can build a profitable system that doesn’t continually require new materials, more energy and resources such as water and land.

At Pangaia, materials are literally being developed from thin air – the company has worked with tech firms such as Twelve and Air-Ink to make sunglasses and ink (for printing on fabric) from carbon pollution. All virgin cotton used is from regenerative farms.

Circularity is built into the product, giving consumers a simple way to return products they no longer need (they are then sold at a discount on the company’s preloved site).

“We need to remember that every product has value,” says Kruse. “Maybe it’s lost value for you, but maybe for someone else it has value, or maybe the raw material has value.” Circularity can become a profitable business model with the right structures in place, she says.

“The largest environmental footprint issue is materials, and circularity can help with that. It requires systemic change and sentiment change. We need take-back systems, we need to incentivise business and consumers to return things and also to consume things that are not new, but new to them. But it’s very promising.”

Ever the stubborn optimist, Kruse often comes back to an early life lesson instilled by her father.

“It can be overwhelming,” she says. “You can think, ‘Who am I, what can I do that matters?’ I remember as a teenager, not wanting to go to a march against nuclear power with my dad. I said, ‘What does it matter if I don’t go?’ And he said, ‘What if everyone said that?’ So I went.

“It matters what you spend your money on, almost more than who you vote for. How you live, what you do on a daily basis, these things are very important. It’s the cumulative power of everyone’s actions, individuals and businesses, that will really make change.”

Original article: here

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