WE ARE WATER. Notes from Neonyt Berlin Conference
The title of this year’s Fashionsustain conference at Neonyt during Berlin Fashion Week was “We are water”. This simple, but oh how loaded and important sentence set the context for conversations which are extremely needed now, in times of water scarcity and an approaching shadow of imminent water stress crisis. And conversations which fashion industry desperately needs to take part in.
Womb was, admittedly, not participating in any of the panels, but we were totally the geeky kid in one of the back rows, writing notes that really needed to be taken until the pen went completely dry. The amount of content during Fashionsustain was overwhelming, in a positive sense, so was the quality of debate. Wide variety of speakers from different fields, from both small and mass retail or design businesses, through NGOs to government officials, granted a versatile and fresh look at the fashion spectrum today.
DAY 1: MASS MARKET AND INFLUENCERS
First public day of Neonyt, Tuesday, was nearly entirely devoted to brands and getting familiar with them. We mingled the hell out of the brands’ section of the fair - the results of this you can check in our previous editorial post, where we brought you review of the most interesting brands we came across. Nonetheless, we managed to grab a spot at two talks, which were quite far from each other thematically, but both brought a fair amount of insight. First one was held in Neonyt’s Silent Forum (thumbs up for using the silent, headphones-based audio system!) and was titled “Circular fashion for mass market” and featured Elin Larsson from Filippa K, Dr. Anna-Maria Schneider from Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development), Henning Siedentop from Melawear and Andreas Streubig from Hugo Boss. The talk was moderated by prof. dr. Sarah Jastram who did her job splendidly, made sure to include all speakers equally and managed to reach a good depth of discussion all-together. While it was rather pleasant to listen to Larsson passionately explain how Filippa K tries actively to introduce more and more sustainable initiatives in their huge company, we are not entirely sure what a person from Hugo Boss could possibly bring into discussion. On one hand, it is naturally good to have big fossilised brands like Boss placed in front of smaller sustainability-driven ones like Melaware and it surely enriches conversation with challenging points. However, in case of Streubig, it did feel like he was absolutely the wrong person for the job, since for him it seemed extremely hard to speak from the perspective other than purely financial one. As much as we appreciate having different actors join the conversation on circularity of fashion, it can feel like a bit of a hit when you hear “I wouldn’t bet on the company becoming sustainable in 15 years. I wouldn’t bet even on 150 years.” Until we cannot have any tangible predictions and real requirements towards the biggest brands who actually do biggest harm, the change will not happen anytime soon. It was refreshing, however, to have Melawear in conversation too, to remind us that change is possible, that there are people out there who are exceptionally sensible and educated about sustainability and they care about more than just pure profit - unlike Hugo Boss.
The second and last talk we joined during the first day, was titled “Sustainable influencer marketing. Practises, potentials, paradoxes”. It featured a moderated conversation between 6 Instagram “influencers” (quotation marks, because we remain just a little sceptical about the real influence): Nina Botzen, Holly Rose, Gabrielle Koster, Chloé from @thegreenmonki, Noa Ben-Moshe and Francesca Willow - each of them with a follower base equivalent to, let’s say, a very small to small town. We need to admit that the panel started in a childish way, with a similar feel to the one you get at a high school presentation - when none of the kids wants to be the first one to speak. Most of the panelists were indeed very very young and, we are admitting it here, we started listening to the panel with a hint of prejudice, which after a while was, only partly, justified. A few of the speakers had, sadly, absolutely nothing to say. Without pointing fingers, but we really feel that sometimes being an influencer and waging success only by visual aspect of your content seems to make the actual educated thought a little shallow and urges to seek help in grass-talk, slogans and expressions which make good captions, but poor discussion points. The panel was brought to the heights of its essential argument by Francesca and Holly, who seemed to be very well prepared and experienced from a journalistic angle. Francesca at some point apologised for “being the only person who speaks” as she (rightfully so) hijacked the convo for a moment there, but we loved listening to her. She brought up very valid points and responsibilities of a person who preaches and speaks to thousands, mostly young and absorbent, people, making it digestible, staying true to the overall message. The panel could have been cut in half in volume and still provoke thought like it did - with appropriate points. Again, quality wins over quantity.
Day 2: WATER, WASTE AND COLLABORATION
Wednesday was truly a heavyweight round with talks from 10:30 until late afternoon. This day was the most aligned with the theme topic, therefore a lot of the talks were about:
excessive water usage in fashion industry,
water-thirsty fabrics like cotton and, logically, denim,
dying techniques and how they can be innovated,
UN’s sustainable development goals
problems of sourcing from developing countries - although this topic was, in our opinion, hugely underdeveloped
Truth be told, we feel like the day was the most profitable for the biggest brands who might be at the threshold of their sustainable journey, as we noted a lot of solutions given to bigger players out there, rather than to customers who seek better shopping alternatives or small businesses planning expansion. We liked the pragmatic character of some talks though, for example during “A circular way of life: the Portuguese approach”, representatives of Citeve, an institute providing technological support to companies in the textile & clothing business (who also co-organised an impressive showcase of apparels sustainably designed and created by Portuguese designers) and Ana Silva from TintexTextiles listed out their actions to connect designers and makers with innovative, more ethical ways of working with fabrics and encouraged, being the only panel that did it, an active discussion and Q&A with the audience.
It seemed like an exceptionally good idea for the Neonyt organisers to, while naming the conference “We are water”, highlight some really important facts that companies and consumers alike should be aware of, and that are directly connected to garments manufacturing - such as levels of water consumption, pollution and waste. It also significantly raised the essential quality of talks to have guests from WWF or Greenpeace which have massive experience in publicising and alleviating global problems.
The need for better, not more, garments was well addressed in a panel titled “Better fibers, better waste” with Sabine Feurer from Sympatex, Amanda Johnston from The Sustainable Angle (who, by the way, also curates this week’s Future Fabrics Expo in London), Linus Mueller from Circular Systems, and two representatives of brands that we already mentioned in our last article - Michael Spitzbarth from Bleed and Andreea Toca from Swedish Stockings. The panel discussed, among other topics, what lays at the very beginning of sustainable fashion: is it the used fabrics or, rather, educating the customers about choices they can make which can alleviate the burden of fashion on the environment. Such debate seems to be one of “chicken-or-egg”, with the most convincing solution to this global problem really laying in multifaceted, multilevel mobilisation of all actors working in fashion: consumers, retailers, suppliers, producers, designers etc. Only when collaboration overcomes competition as a systemic approach in fashion industry, can we truly talk about the possibility of rebuilding what we already damaged and prevent the further damage. Idealistic, but true.
No other panel spoke better about this cross-section collaboration than the one moderated by Clare Press from Vogue Australia titled “We are water, oceans, rivers - and pollutants. Where do we go from here?”. The panel boasted big names from across the board - Kristen Brodde from Greenpeace, Alexander Nolte from Stop! Micro Waste, Angela Suarez Garcia from Inditex, Heike Vesper from WWF and Melati Wijsen from Bye Bye Plastic Bags Bali - a prodigy child of 18-years, whose each answer shaped as motivational speech received applause. a very broad scope of expertise that the panel represented awakened, as a result, a very widespread reflection and each speaker brought in a completely different perspective on what their respective organisations are doing to tackle global problems. As could be expected, Suarez Garcia could only limit herself to sharing a hardly comprehensive slide with all the sustainable fields of action carried by Inditex and she cannot be blamed for it. Being a sustainability representative of, probably, one of the biggest fashion polluters cannot be an easy job and joining a conversation about tangible, pursuable ethical goals must be a challenge. In a very limited, cautious way, she did her best to try to convince us on how much Inditex is actually doing to tackle the problem - unfortunately, leaving nothing behind other than this annoying “this is not enough” aftertaste. We loved to listen to Vesper from WWF who spoke from a perspective of a marine biologist on problems with disappearing biodiversity, one which is too often overlooked, but happily appearing on the sustainability debate map. We loved the enthusiasm of young Wijsen who shared her truly inspiring goal of vocalising about plastic pollution problem, especially in her homeland of Bali. She spoke of lack of inclusion of youth, who in her words “will have to deal with the pollution problem entirely”, but still lacks space in public debate. Leaving aside her very well prepared TED-ish speaking mannerism, she brought some important reflections on fossilised and self-respecting pool of public debaters of only well-known, huge players who are often reluctant to include smaller, younger and “less-significant” conversation partners.
Not to complain, but there were a couple of things that we did not like as well. The day was full of absolutely insightful panels with people boasting huge experience, however it did feel un-inclusive. Barely any of the panels offered a Q&A or feedback section, making the speakers isolated from the audience. After talks, they would mostly also quickly get off the stage and rush to the Speakers Lounge to mingle with each other rather than have a chat with audience. If would be a great action from the organisers’ side to make it easier for the listeners to have a chance to ask their questions and get to know speakers in less know-it-all scenario and more thought-exchange one. The moderator of most of the talks, Vanessa de Lacaze, also left a lot to wish for. It was obvious she had close to zero essential knowledge about sustainability in general, and maybe she did general reading before the event and thought of some personal stories connected to plastic bags in Haiti, but it was definitely not enough to ask clever questions and engage in a deeper conversation with panelists. She also did not do the best job with including all the speakers equally, and the question we heard her ask the most was “I see you are nodding your head - do you have anything to add?”. Luckily, we got an entirely different experience from moderators during the next day!
DAY 3: ACTION, EMPATHY AND EMPOWERMENT
Thursday, the third and last day of Neonyt, was absolutely the best one in terms of genuine content and informal character of talks. In a much smaller and more intimate space of Kraftwerk’s Schaltraum, moderators Geraldine de Bastion from Konnektiv Kollektiv and Cecilia Palmer from The Craft Atlas created an inclusive forum with excellent speakers, lots of Q&A opportunities, experience-based content and loads of practical, empathetic and down-to-earth insights on how to approach sustainability. The first crown jewel of the forum was a panel tackling the problem of cultural appropriation in fashion with guests from Nigeria Fashion Week, Made By Immigrants NGO or Instituto E. The talk calmly explained the importance of promotion, instead of exploitation, of African creators and craftsmen and brought up a couple of infamous examples of how we, in the “developed” parts of the globe, often scrap off the under-privileged for our own success and acclaim. Such practices must stop, they are unethical and wrong. It also brought up the subject of immigrants and how they always bring value and skill, instead of trouble, to countries they seek asylum in - the fact that we often forget about. Made By Immigrants also spoke about how they aim to re-brand a profile of an immigrant from a burden to an asset, inspiration and learnt craft. Putting aside the waste, pollution and production problems of fashion, the panel focused on the cultural problems, lack of understanding, superiority-based competitiveness and tendency for disrespectful approach to under-developed and under-privileged parts of societies.
Another panel that absolutely blew our mind was one titled “Fashion, activism and empowerment” with representatives from Rhumaa, Mimycri, ProjectTres and Bezgraniz Couture. Among the absolute highlights of this one was undeniably Vera Günther (Mimycri) who came up with re-using rubber boats, used by immigrants to reach refugee points such as ones on Greek Islands, to create accessories from them, in order to, further, bring attention to her NGO that tries to change perspective about immigrants and preach the message of positive change. Another highlight was Janina Urussowa (Bezgraniz), a Russian organisation supporting design of adaptive fashion for the people with different types of disabilities. She advocated splendidly for the urgent need for us to broaden the scope of tolerance for body types other than “standard” and normalise the body image that is different (not worse!) from one shown extensively by mass popular culture. As we can read on their website, their work “includes Paralympians, models, celebrities, and public leaders with and without disabilities, and people who inspire others by their example and will power.” The panel brought up topics of not really sustainability, but simple humanity and empathy which, in work and business scenario, we are often lacking.
Among other topics, the forum’s other talks addressed the importance of education in shaping the sustainable thought, especially among the young consumers and designers. The immediate need of “producing” designers was questioned and, as Suzanne Van Rooij from Amsterdam Fashion Institute rightfully pointed out, we are now in process of educating more and more designers every year (especially in China, with 800 design schools and counting) without necessarily giving them an appropriate education on more conscious and sustainable practices. With so much “design power” all-together, there will be no way to ensure all of them will be practicing mindful, educated and well-thought design which means no harm. Consumption will always be there, as long as there are things to consume. We are making sure there are more and more brands out there and, in effect, more products. Logical question that arises is: how can we hope for all the ready-to-consume objects change their lifecycle from disposable to reusable, or even compostable, if we do not teach ourselves how to design them this way?
Ufff, this has been surely a long read by now and we thank you so much for making it to this spot, if you did. Neonyt was full of insights for us and surely gave us a lot to go on for the foreseeable future. We are extremely happy to see so much eagerness for positive change out there and incredible projects and initiatives which have every chance to change the status quo. We wish events like this didn’t go without an echo and instead of going back back to business as usual, sparked a real reflection, thought and drive action.
See you for the next edition!