Every once in a while, something magical happens to transform a boring conference call into an inspiring debate. Last week, the Advisory Group to the NICE Consumer project (a group that represents Marks and Spencer, H&M, Vivienne Westwood, WGSN, and PPR) met virtually to officially kick off the project, and the mix of industry experience, visionary thinking, and critical questions were explosive.

The Advisory Group’s role is to provide their insight and guidance to the project team, which is charged with beginning to remake the fashion industry (both consumption and production) to be more sustainable. About 15 minutes into the call, my carefully crafted agenda was upended when one group member lobbed a rhetorical bomb and asked: “Why are we talking about government at all? Approaching governments is a totally unworkable aim. They can’t even agree on how to combat counterfeiting. Government has nothing to do with it.’’

This comment served to launch a fascinating, 45-minute conversation digging deep into the muddle of current fashion industry trends, consumer preferences, drivers of behavior change, and options for government action on sustainable consumption. It also served to challenge one of the main activities of the project; we are striving to provide recommendations to Danish trade and environmental ministers while Denmark holds the presidency of the European Union.

Here are some of the big questions we likely will be asking in the months ahead:

1. What are the definitions of “sustainable fashion” and “sustainable consumption of fashion”? Are we discussing only the buying behaviors of consumers? Are the mending and recycling of garments also on the proverbial table? Where do organic and alternative fibers, zero waste design, and upcycling enter the discussion? And how are we going reduce the amount of consumption when it appears directly opposed to commercial incentives for retailers (i.e. less is clearly not more, especially when buying fewer garments leads to lower revenue)?

In a discussion paper that will be released next week, BSR and the Danish Fashion Institute will propose working definitions for some of these terms. We hope to refine these definitions throughout an online consultation process.

2. It is clear that consumers are not demonstrating a commitment to sustainability through their purchasing behaviors, and retailers are not providing sustainable options and marketing to the mainstream. How do we get past this current retailer/customer stalemate? How do we move beyond this game of “hot potato” or “pass the parcel” with the costs of sustainability investments, and instill a shared responsibility (and incentives) for changing the entire system?

The inertia that maintains the current system of make/buy/toss must be countered in order for a new “Circular Economy” to emerge. We aim to identify roles and practical next steps for the industry, civil society, government, and consumers, so that all the elements of the consumption and production system begin to move in the right direction.

3. Finally, we must address the question that kicked off the discussion: What role can government play? If government policy typically is aimed more at influencing industry practices, what policies can and should governments put forward related to consumers? Beyond regulating industry, what role can government play to incentivize and raise awareness of behaviors to reduce the impacts of fashion consumption?

We will provide some initial thoughts in response to this question in the discussion paper mentioned above. As more governments take up this question in various ways (e.g. through chemical bans, transparency requirements, or awareness campaigns), we hope to influence their understanding of the problems and potential solutions.

You can contribute to answering these questions (or raise new ones) by participating in the NICE Consumer project’s consultation process.

  • Sign up for webinars on March 13, March 20 and April 3. The events start at 4 p.m. Central European Time. For more information, contact us.
  • Follow @NiceConsumer on Twitter.
  • Register to follow the conversation on 2degrees.