Fashion can look to other sectors to learn about sustainability

51st St Gallen Symposium, Switzland

Johannes Reponen, Director of Postgraduate Programmes at the Condé Nast College attends the 51st St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland. Here, he reflects on how refreshing it is to learn from other sectors outside of the fashion industry. 


St Gallen Symposium

The St Gallen Symposium is an annual annual conference that aims to provoke cross-generational conversations about the most important issues facing our planet. This year, the theme was around the collaborative advantage. The event was opened by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and during the two days, a variety of speakers ranging from politicians to CEOs, academics as well as policymakers shared their perspectives on topics ranging from climate change, investment, innovation, and regulation.   

I was there on behalf of Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design to lead a panel discussion under the heading, Hacking the Fashion & Luxury Watchmaking Industry towards more Sustainability. To discuss this topic, I was joined by Martina Bonnier, Editor-In-Chief, Vogue Scandinavia, Raynald Aeschlimann, President and CEO of Omega and Carmen Jenny, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the CLOTHESfriends app.


A more sustainable fashion industry

Fashion as a topic is not the primary focus of the symposium, so it was a great opportunity for the College to be asked to explore the theme together. Certainly, there is richness as well as a practical learning opportunity in finding out what others think. From the perspective of a luxury watchmaker, Raynald Aeschlimann said his company’s core focus is on the material production of objects and so its main efforts regarding sustainability largely relate to that function. To that end, Omega has factories that essentially power themselves and the company is putting a lot of thought into considering the ethics behind some of the materials it uses.  

By contrast, Carmen Jenny’s app is about the circular economy. CLOTHESfriends is a platform where people can lend, trade, or buy clothes. As she memorably reminded everyone, “the most sustainable clothes are those that are already in your wardrobe.” Everyone has clothing items hanging up or in a drawer that are rarely worn, and the intention is partly to engage that unused resource. After all, people have been renting tuxedos and the like for weddings forever, so why not hire other items also?  

Audience listening to panel discussion

Sustainability for the magazine industry 

Martina Bonnier on the other hand, talked about the role of media from the perspective of being one of the most forward-thinking magazine operations in the world in terms of sustainability. For instance, Vogue Scandinavia isn’t available via newsstands because there’s so much waste in that method of distribution. All the magazine’s packaging is plastic free and they work with a Finnish company Stora Enso which provides sustainable, forest-sourced paper. Not to mention the fact that the magazine is dedicated to promoting sustainable fashion options and it plays a part in helping to change people’s attitudes towards fashion with this. 

We discussed the hypothesis that fashion and luxury industries like high-end watchmaking are in the business of creating and selling desire, and this very much focused on driving consumption. Both are huge industries; the global fashion sector is worth $3 trillion which is two percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, while the global watch market was valued at just over $90 billion last year.  One in eight of the world’s workers are employed in fashion and textiles.  


The downside of this is that the fashion industry accounts for 1.2 billion tons of carbon pollution every year – more than shipping and aviation combined. Consumer demand for cheap clothing is driving the level of wastage even faster than ever before as it’s estimated the number of times a garment is worn has decreased by a worldwide average of 36% within the last two decades – and only around a quarter of used clothing gets reused or recycled globally, with, for example, 85% of fast fashion in the US ending up in a landfill. The question we therefore discussed was how designers, brands, retailers, and publishers can exit this vicious cycle and collaboratively drive the transition towards a more sustainable and ethical fashion.


Carmen Jenny pointed out that the attitude to clothing and also to the concept of ownership is changing among younger people. They don’t all buy cars, for example, they share rides. And they’re asking why the clothes we wear necessarily need to belong to us.


We also discussed the very definition of sustainable, in that while it’s frequently applied to the production and consumption of goods there seems to be less thought going into what makes human sustainabilitynot just around issues like inclusion and diversity but also working practices, terms of employment and the very fact that everything in the fashion sector is about speed which is in itself unsustainable on a human level.

Promoting conversations across industries

The panel was over all too quickly, although with a subject so complex, any brief discussion will only ever scratch the surface. I came away from St Gallen with so much to think about. The fashion world tends to be a rather insular bubble, so it was refreshing to hear from the worlds of politics, economics, insurance, and banking – all bringing a variety of perspectives, sometimes entirely alien to our industry and sometimes remarkably familiar.


It is hard to overstate the value of not just St Gallen’s stated aim of promoting conversations across the generations but also among such a wide variety of industries and experiences.  It is a timely reminder that we always have so much to learn from each other and the importance of having a cross-generational as well as cross-disciplinary conversation about issues such as sustainability.


Find out more about our variety of Masters Programmes