”The misconception that some technical solution will solve all of the problems is often a huge barrier for change”

On the fundamental changes that it takes to make the fashion industry a force for good
October 04, 2021

Frederik Larsen has a background in academic research on sustainability, business practices, and resale economies and Moussa Mchangama’s is in media and strategic communications with a large focus on value-based communication, representation and diversity, and community building. Together, they run In futurum, a Copenhagen-based consultancy working on sustainability and social justice issues, advising companies and organizations on strategy, conducting research, and doing public speaking.

— In our work, Mchangama tells, we are joining our professional and academic backgrounds to ensure we work from a research-based and knowledge-driven foundation but in an engaging way that translates into the reality of companies and organizations today, making sure that we push for the systemic and fundamental change that is so needed.

When you speak to your clients in the fashion industry, what picture do they draw about the current state in it? 

Moussa: One of uncertainty. People are increasingly aware of how impactful and damaging the fashion industry is on an overall level, but that might be hard to grasp for the individual. Furthermore, I think so many business owners, designers, and marketing professionals are super aware of how difficult it is to not do something wrong. The window of opportunity to be carefree and careless has closed. Your company will be called out if it’s doing something it shouldn’t and it’s a fact that scares so many people. But departing from a point of fear is usually not a good starting point for creating change. 

Frederik: Fashion finds itself in a space of both conflict and opportunity: on the one hand fashion is being rightly criticized for being excluding, discriminating, frivolous, and exploitative. On the other hand, global production is projected to grow even further. That means that people feel uneasy being part of it, but there is still profit to be made, which is a big driver for many people. Right now, designers, companies, and buyers have to decide which direction they want to go in: if they want to ignore the mounting problems with the current business models, or if they feel that fashion as a form of cultural expression has something to contribute, but in a very different format. Many of our clients want to address that need for change, that’s why they approach us, and I think many of them feel that a new way of doing fashion is absolutely necessary. 

How are fashion, climate, and social injustice connected? 

Frederik: Climate and social justice are linked in many ways, but most directly through the question of: who has overwhelmingly contributed to the current climate crisis? The answer is the Global North. Who will be hit the hardest by the effects of the climate crisis: the Global South. And on top of that, women, minorities, and BIPOCs are continuously excluded from the conversations of how we prevent the crisis from worsening. If we look at fashion and socio-environmental injustice, fashion as a phenomenon is white, elitist, and a product of exploitative industrial capitalism. Style, decoration, expressing identity through clothes and dressing yourself is not. But fashion is. That links the current fashion system to climate and injustice.

Moussa: Furthermore, the fashion industry is based on exploitative business models that are closely linked to the history of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism. The oppressive global supply chains and the enormous wealth generated by relatively few companies and conglomerates in the Global North are directly linked to an industrialized European textile industry that was only possible because of slave-based cotton production in colonized lands. Ecosystems, indigenous lands, and peoples were destroyed and killed in the hunt for new land that could be turned into profitable production grounds and it’s exactly the same system we see today. Now, just — mostly — carried out by corporations hunting for profit instead of nation-states. 

And what needs to be done to turn it into social justice?

Moussa: First of all, we need to very directly understand that we are all intimately linked on this planet and that we are totally dependent on thriving ecosystems as well. If we begin from a place of connectedness and couple that with the knowledge that our current capitalist systems are based on exploitative injustices that have killed, hurt, displaced, and destroyed in its wake, the narrative and foundation for creating change changes completely. If the White Man is responsible for the destruction, he cannot also hold all the answers or solutions and make a profit at the same time — and so centering injustice in your approach to sustainable development is about changing dominant narratives and mindsets, making space for different kinds of knowledge, peoples, ways of living or existing, and redistributing power and profit. It destabilizes capitalist and white saviorist narratives and creates a much more holistic and nurturing approach to engaging with the world. 

From your perspective, in more general terms, what’s wrong with the industry today? What are the main issues that it needs to handle in order to become a force for good? 

Frederik: That is a question that requires a longer answer, but it involves rethinking the entire fashion system and decentralizing the systems of power throughout production, consumption, trends, influences, knowledge, and the economy. And the question remains: What does it mean to be a force for good? In order to move to a place where the fashion industry does less harm, which unfortunately is a huge step in itself, it needs to tackle widespread exploitation and inequality in the supply chain, insurmountable waste problems, and the singular focus on economic growth. Also, the misconception that some technical solution will solve all of the problems is often a huge barrier to change.

Moussa: Increasingly becoming aware that the idea of fashion in itself is an elitist and excluding concept based on never-ending consumption and hunting for the new is very necessary. Furthermore, when fashion as a system or idea is exported across the world, it often replaces traditional and historic cultural practices of wearing garments and creating textiles and as such destroys many ancient cultural practices. 

What does it take to turn the industry into something good, a business that all in all helps the world and the people in it to prosper?

Frederik: The way the industry works right now will never be a catalyst for widespread prosperity. The dominant fast fashion business model mainly serves to create profit for the few at the expense of people and planet. In order to create prosperity, we need an industry where the people making the clothes are valued for their work and a system of marketing and sales that is not based on creating waste. Just to name a few. But the fashion industry is not one thing. There are many different kinds of companies, manufacturers, designers, and people involved. So, a big part of changing the industry is about centering other voices, other ways of working and producing.

Are you optimistic? Will we ever see this shift? If so, when?

Moussa: As long as big corporations are so extremely powerful and leverage their wealth and impact for their own profit, we need hardcore political, legislative, and regulatory action that changes our idea of responsibility. The fashion industry — like many others — has a very long supply chain, but the design company itself does not have any accountability or responsibility throughout that chain. That has to change fundamentally; just think about the lack of responsibility in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza accident that killed over 1,100 people or how quickly European fashion companies cancelled orders and focused on their own profit when the pandemic hit — it so clearly highlights how little many companies care about the workers actually creating their textiles and products.

Frederik: It will require a huge effort and getting some very powerful people to assume responsibility. One of the barriers is that many of the global companies are just as much part of the financial markets as the fashion industry. That means that the interest in investing in change is minimal. If we are to see a real shift, we need changes in many areas of the global economies and political arenas.

Can you share any good examples and what they do good?

Moussa: Creating structural change is obviously a massive task, but that’s exactly why we don’t just work directly with companies on developing strategies. As important as that is, we also need to continuously create new knowledge through independent research projects, we need to engage with the public through moderating talks and speaking out, we need to work politically and structurally with political parties and organizations. We try and push on as many frontiers as possible to ensure everyone moves in a different direction. 

Frederik: We prefer to work with structural changes, and therefore we don’t like to focus on individual cases and initiatives. But one example of an initiative aimed at structural change is the Copenhagen Fashion Week Sustainability Framework that we have developed together with Copenhagen Fashion Week. The framework helps fashion brands understand how they can take action and sets requirements that will help align the industry. The framework is currently being implemented by other organizations and used in different companies already.

What else do you work with now?

Frederik: We are publishing reports on an ongoing basis, the latest is on the use of the new generation of materials, and currently we are conducting research on anti-racism and inclusion practices in companies. We make our research freely available on our website to contribute to the collective knowledge on sustainability and justice.

Moussa: We are very much not here for a ridiculous growth journey, but we are continuously looking at how to leverage our own power and influence in the industry — and expanding that. Right now, it means working more throughout Scandinavia and hopefully doing more projects abroad.

Moussa Mchangama and Frederik Larsen