26 Jun 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

The fashion sky clears up in Switzerland

Photo by Swiss Fair Trade

High up in the Swiss mountains, under a cloudless sky, surrounded by a bold rocky landscape, over 70 professionals from the fashion industry gathered to explore ways to make the trade more sustainable. Though it seems like nothing could threaten this beautiful age-old scenery, dark clouds hang over the fashion and textile business.

Considered one of the most environmentally damaging and polluting industries, textile production is responsible for 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions. The global fashion industry has also been tainted with animal welfare and human rights issues in its manufacturing and production processes.

With consumers increasingly demanding change, many companies acknowledge the issues and seem eager to consider sustainability as the new ‘business as usual’. This third half-yearly edition of the Kerenzerberg Future Forum for Sustainable and Ethical Fashion could, therefore, not have been timed better, as participants met on 5 June, World Environment Day.

"The visible beauty of fashion disguises the invisible impact the industry has on the air we breathe. From sourcing onwards, we have tools today that can help us redesign our processes to minimize our footprint," said Coty Jeronimus, from creative laboratory Tasklab.

Brands, producers, textile manufacturers, and retailers are seeking ways to clean up their industry and reduce fashion’s negative social, economic and environmental impact. But where should the starting point be, in an industry where improvements need to be made on everything from human rights, women’s empowerment, animal welfare to air pollution, water consumption and circular textiles?

“Switzerland is a world leader in the consumption of organic and fair trade food per inhabitant. Switzerland should also take the lead in sustainable textiles, not only in consumption per inhabitant, but also in the change of the textile and clothing industry to sustainability,” said Tobias Meier, from ecos and MaxTex Switzerland.

“Making the fashion industry more sustainable is a joint responsibility, requiring both the resolve of individual companies to start taking action in their own way and an openness to collaborate in order to tackle the complex challenges we are up against together,” added Martine Nieuwenhuis, co-founder of Good Brand Guru—a network enabling knowledge-sharing and collaboration among sustainable fashion professionals and businesses.

Sometimes, too many choices make moving forward difficult. To accelerate the industry’s move towards sustainability, a working group composed of nine prominent fashion and textile professionals developed a charter with 11 guiding principles addressing social, environmental and economic issues. During their deliberations, one common theme kept emerging: the need for openness. Openness in the sense of requesting information from partners, providing transparency and being open to improvement.

The Kerenzerberg Charter for Sustainable Textiles was launched after six months of work. It calls for business leaders to ask questions, request transparency, and continuously seek to do better. It asks companies to take responsibility for their workers along the supply chain, ensuring safe working conditions, fair wages and workers’ development. And it calls on them to take responsibility for protecting the environment through technologies and innovation that combat water and air pollution, avoid toxic chemicals, strive for raw material diversity and care for animal welfare.

The charter is a living document that can support companies and business leaders to improve their impact on people and the planet. It takes courage and persistence to make fundamental changes in this industry. The charter is a guideline for those willing to make those changes, as it provides a basis for internal discussions, interactions with partners and even conversations with competitors. 

High up in Glarus Nord, the view seemed to provide a symbolic backdrop to the launch of the charter. There are still mountains to climb, but the sky is clearing up for Swiss fashion on its journey towards sustainability.