Collaboration, the Way to a More Sustainable Fashion Industry?

Written by Alixe Averty and Anne Jørgensen

Over the past two years, the fashion industry has been required to adapt to the growing expectations coming from conscious consumers who are concerned with the way that their clothes are produced. As a consequence many fashion brands have made the crucial decision to integrate a sustainable transition into their strategy; often referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR.

Undergoing a transition to sustainable practices has certainly proven to be a real challenge for the fashion companies. Especially as it includes reinventing their entire business model without knowing where to start: should they focus on raw materials? On suppliers? Or on transparency? Not to mention the investments needed to implement a CSR strategy.

The First Danish “CSR Network”

In 2016 Mette Lind Jensen was appointed head of CSR of the Danish brand, Samsøe & Samsøe. Initiating her new responsibilities, she quickly realized that major changes were necessary in order to apply the principles of sustainability throughout the company. Moreover faced with the extent and urgency of the task, as well as the lack of available information on the subject, Mette quickly felt overwhelmed.

At the time the Danish fashion industry was known to be a very closed environment, in which a collaboration between competing companies was unheard of. Despite of this Mette Lind Jensen reached out to other companies and invited them to discuss the challenges and solutions for a sustainable development. – The first Danish “CSR network” was born!

The collaboration quickly became a great success and for more than 2 years 7 competing companies have now been discussing their CSR strategies on a regular basis. The need for direction and support has furthermore resulted in the creation of a second CSR network, allowing 18 fashion companies to discuss their challenges related to the subject.

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The Strength of a Combined Effort

The members of the first CSR network took some time to get to know each other and to build trust. However, they quickly understood the value of an open dialogue in order to be able to approach the essential issues. As a result many topics were discussed but never economy and numbers. Mette confides that for the members it is a huge advantage to be able to have a dialogue not monopolized by numbers, nor by their position as competitors.

When economic rivalry is set aside, the CSR networks are more likely to provide solid results that can impact the fashion industry in a positive way. The issues addressed by the networks are often related to every day tasks, but also long-term projects, such as how to manage overstock, the efficiency and impact of innovative materials, as well as many other subjects.

The impact of the CSR networks on the fashion industry becomes even more significant thanks to the participation of Danish Fashion & Textile, an industry and employers’ association for Danish textile and clothing companies. Its main purpose is to support the Danish fashion industry including fashion companies and members of the CSR networks. By taking part in the meetings the association has a very important role in structuring the knowledge obtained and communicating it to the entire industry. Therefore, the association’s participation in the meetings allows other companies to benefit from the results enabling an even more significant impact. Due to this broad collaborative vision the Danish fashion industry holds an important key to a long lasting change.

The creation of the CSR networks, as well as the exchanges that take place, has already shown a significant impact on the fashion industry’s traditional business model. Who would have thought that a seemingly simple initiative of reaching out in a very closed and competitive industry could become the key to a more sustainable fashion industry?

Suppliers, the Key to a Successful Sustainable Transition

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About Samsøe & Samsøe

Samsøe & Samsøe is a well-established Danish company with an international client base. The company started their sustainable transition in 2016 and in 2020, they published their first sustainable development report.

It is a well-known fact that many Danish brands use the same suppliers. However, even if the companies collaborate within CSR networks and share information and know-how, the collaboration does not yet include their production chain.

Consequently, Samsøe & Samsøe is currently contributing to the development of a free and accessible tool, facilitating the exchange of information between suppliers and brands as well as between different brands. Information delivered by this tool can be updated by the suppliers as well as by the various fashion brands collaborating with the same supplier. The main objective is to share key data while enhancing transparency. According to Mette, the goal of the Danish brands is: “To help each other instead of competing with the overall purpose to contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry.”

Beyond joining forces and sharing knowledge, Danish fashion brands seem to have everything to gain, including at a supplier level.

The Beginning of a Global Change in the Fashion Industry?

The Danish initiative introduces the possibility of an even broader collaboration between various actors at different levels of the global fashion industry. Certainly the idea of networking groups could be extended to other countries.

At EU level brands are already invited to collaborate to define new guidelines and regulations for the European fashion industry.

However, Mette points out that this kind of strategic collaboration is proved to be complex from a practical point of view as each country has its own standards and supply chains. A global sustainable transition only seems possible if all actors – companies, media, political decision-makers, NGOs, as well as consumers – collaborate both on a strategic and a practical level.

In conclusion, it is interesting to consider if both a strategic and practical collaboration is possible, in order to limit the negative environmental and humanitarian impact of the fashion industry in the long term.