10 Takeaways From The Sustainable Fashion Research Agenda Conference

On Monday, our sustainable apparel and textiles expert Charlotte Turner attended the inaugural Sustainable Fashion Research Agenda Conference in Copenhagen. The aim of the conference was to ensure that all parts of our global knowledge resource engage in the topic of sustainability in fashion – from industry practitioners and product/service users, to researchers and policy-makers.  Here’s what she learnt.

Having worked in industry, academic, NGO and charity environments, I have witnessed first hand the gap that urgently needs bridging between academic research, industry practice, and education. While there have been efforts to collaborate and make positive progress across the industry, when it comes to integrating new ways of thinking and doing in to business-as-usual, or into policy, we are still lacking a coherent voice and working in fragmented siloes.

The inaugural Sustainable Fashion Research Agenda Conference was certainly thought-provoking compared to the standard corporate conferences we have become accustomed to, offering a day of vibrant research-based discussion and debate, asking the question ‘how can we turn knowledge into action?’  It provided the opportunity to critically consider where we are and where we need to be from both an academic and industry perspective.

A highlight of the day was Kate Fletcher’s keynote speech, sharing the Manifesto of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion. The Union was set up to address some of the most pressing concerns in relation to sustainability progress, intensified by the actions of both industry and the research community: “We, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, recognise that the response of the fashion sector to the intensifying ecological crisis has been – and continues to be – over-simplified, fragmented and obstructed by the growth logic of capitalist business models as they are currently realised and practiced,” said Kate. “Further, we recognise that uncritical research findings, duplication of research, reduction and misuse of scientific and technical knowledge reinforces and speeds up this over-simplified condition in the fashion industry.”

The Union has set out a nine-point manifesto, incorporating proposals such as creating an ‘activist knowledge ecology’, advocating for whole systems and paradigm change, diversifying the voices within fashion and sustainability discourse, and devising means for turning research applications towards the underlying root causes of pressing environmental and social problems.

One concern of the Union is the proliferation of misleading terminology and a lack of credible information available to the public and industry alike, so one of its first actions was to update the Wikipedia page on ‘sustainable fashion’ – the first place many people will look to learn what ‘sustainable fashion’ means. The Union is inviting volunteers to translate this content to ensure it is universally accessible, and is also planning a glossary of key terms to support research integrity. 

Beyond this, the conference used the topics of a Culture of Compliance, Circularity, and Sustainability and Use as guiding themes for talks, panels, and working groups – topics that can greatly benefit from collaboration and knowledge sharing from all previously mentioned groups.  

Here are my takeaways:

1. Climate change, species extinction, and environmental degradation are playing a bigger role in politics than ever before, and complex value chains touch all sections of society – universities and knowledge hubs therefore have a greater responsibility than ever for helping to turn knowledge into action, which will also require collaboration and engagement from industry and policy-makers. 

2. Kate Fletcher observed that fashion and sustainability knowledge is fragmented and over-simplified, lacking an effective ‘knowledge ecology’ to link up research and avoid duplication. Valuable research in the area of sustainability has been conducted for decades, but we are seeing cross-overs and a lack of visibility on existing work that could help improve the social and environmental performance of the fashion industry. Additionally, she observed that it is the whole fashion system that must be fixed – we cannot do it in parts, and the growth logic we are currently stuck with is obstructing sustainability. We cannot continue this growing demand on diminishing resources. This is something we know to be true, and something that every part of the fashion industry has a responsibility to address. 

3. Lori DiVito from the Amsterdam School of Sustainable Business observed that ‘compliance’ is important for businesses to maintain legitimacy and a licence to operate, but it is not systems level change – it is an essential first step, but we still need greater business model innovation for sustainability progress. It was even argued that compliance has the potential to make us complacent – that focusing on managing risks could stop the push for systemic change. Questions from participants included ‘what does compliance actually mean?’ and ‘what are we complying with?’ With such a proliferation of standards and guidelines it is easy for brands and others in the fashion system to become overwhelmed. The UN Guiding Principles and OECD guidelines were suggested as good starting points, and Eco-Age has been actively involved in the campaign for a legal and universally binding living wage.  

4. Transparency and traceability are essential starting points for sustainability in fashion, and we should applaud those who are already making strides in these areas. However, we should not be transparent just to be transparent, but because we can use this information to make things better. Change must come from within, and a real commitment to do things better – this is an ethical imperative and not something that can be pushed back on until we can provide rationales such as satisfactory statistical impact on the bottom line, or positive media exposure. 

5. Herman Stal from Umea School of Business, Economics and Statistics discussed an important need to decouple ‘core’ and ‘compartment’ – that is, to separate the positive projects from the core business models and behaviours. Whilst the projects can be a positive launchpad for both consumer and business behaviour change, it is imperative that deep-rooted change is activated at the level of core business strategy. 

6. Kate Goldsworthy from University of the Arts London expressed a need to work on making the system we currently have as good as possible, whilst also developing alternatives that could replace the current system, such as circularity. A polarisation of views regarding circularity was exposed, with one point of debate being the idea of clothing respect and value, and even the fact that we need full systemic change rather than adding circular components to a linear system. However, there is a great deal of research and investment in progress to move us closer towards having the correct infrastructure and systems in place to enable a circular system to become a reality. 

7. There is significant research and development occurring in the textiles sector, but the potential effectiveness of research projects is being challenged by the gap between research and industry. Whilst a research project may receive funding to develop a small quantity of material, industry investment to move beyond this requires scaling up at a speed and level that is not feasible. We should be able to bridge the gap between the two without requiring industry to invest in new technology and machinery. 

8. Clothes (and accessories) need to be considered as items to use, not to sell. Professor Ingun Grimstad Klepp discussed the three key aspects of consumption: acquisition, use, and disposal. From the very beginning of the design process we must consider all three phases. For example, the use phase may be where we have the potential to make the biggest impact, as a garment could be worn 2 times, or 2,000 times depending on how successful a design it is – this is important as the more we wear a garment the better value return we have on the resources it took to be created, but equally we need to be mindful of clothing care practices which can use high levels of water and energy. To impact the use phase means making better quality and more durable clothes, with suitable and flexible sizing. 

9. Sizing was a key topic discussed by Katherine Townsend from Nottingham University, from the perspective that feeling good in clothing is a key step to prolonging its life, which is an important factor for sustainability. She discussed emotional fit, and the fact that we need to be more democratic with our clothing sizes to cater for different ages and body shapes. It was also noted that the ‘standard size system’ does not actually reflect realistic body types, and Townsend’s research has found that since it is based on 2D measurement averages only and not differing body shapes, the actual fit success rate could be lower than 10%. This is incredibly significant when considering potential impacts on self-esteem and body positivity. 

10. Finally, we must look at media as collaborators in creating fashion, rather than a separate entity placed outside of ethical remits. Media has the platform and the responsibility to communicate based on robust research and fact – and the exciting opportunity to engage global audiences in a new fashion narrative.


The SFRA event was a collaboration between Copenhagen Business School and Design School Kolding, supported by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Research Council of Norway as part of the project Future Ways of Working (275347) in the digital economy.