Norwegian fashion: Setting a sustainable standard

Published August 15, 2018

The Explorer has interviewed three actors on the Norwegian fashion scene, and they concur: Sustainability in fashion is an imperative.

According to Statistics Norway, Norwegians throw out 110 000 metric tons of textiles each year. Most of these are clothes, and only seven per cent are reused or recycled.

Given the continuous pursuit of new trends, the term “sustainable fashion” might seem like an oxymoron. However, it is a subject on more and more people’s lips in the Norwegian fashion and clothing industry – with good reason.

“Sustainability has long been at the top of the agenda for many in the Norwegian fashion industry, but it has become even more important in recent years,” says Ditte Kristensen.

As CEO of Oslo Runway, a new Norwegian fashion event, Kristensen has gained insight into sustainability challenges facing the industry. These include choice of materials, use of chemicals, overconsumption of water, freight, overproduction and waste management.

According to Kristensen, more and more individuals and organisations – such as Copenhagen Fashion Summit – are working to promote sustainability in fashion internationally, stressing the need for change.

Norwegian actors are particularly committed, says Kristensen, due in good part to fundamental Norwegian – and Nordic – values.

“Egalitarianism, gender equality, tolerance and openness are firmly rooted in Norwegian society. These are reflected in Norwegian fashion as well, making it attractive internationally. A number of actors in the Norwegian fashion industry integrate corporate social responsibility into every segment of their activities.”

Kristensen notes that consumers have also become more aware when buying clothing.

“More people are checking where the clothes are produced and what they are made of. They are also more conscious about reuse. Today’s consumer is much more enlightened, and expects luxury brands to offer good answers to their questions and to be worth the investment.”

Oslo Runway itself has taken steps to increase focus on sustainability challenges in fashion.

“We have headhunted an expert in sustainability to sit on our board in order to focus more on sustainability in our event. The industry cluster Norwegian Fashion Hub also gives priority to sustainability. The cluster works strategically with numerous Norwegian fashion companies to enhance expertise, develop business models and promote change in the industry.”

Mountains of unsold clothes “I have developed a distaste for the imprecision of the hypercommercial clothing industry. With today’s extreme, fast-paced consumption, the industry is stuck in a production pattern that is tremendously difficult to break,” says Gisle Mariani Mardal, Head of Innovation at Norwegian Fashion Hub.

After completing his degree in clothing design in London, Mardal worked for a long time for H&M, among others. Early on he became familiar with what he dubs “the principles of overconsumption in society”.

“‘Fast fashion’ involves selling a large volume of clothing at the lowest possible price. This has led to overproduction and a pressing waste problem. In addition, the clothes are often produced in low-cost countries with very few sanctions for human rights violations, pollution of groundwater and the like.”

Mardal points out that many of the major chains are now struggling to dispose responsibly of mountains of unsold inventory.

“Many of the largest actors are now feeling it on the bottom line. The market is constantly saturated, customers can’t bear to buy anything more.”

“If all industries and sectors continue to overuse resources, the basis for existence may ultimately be destroyed,” he warns. “This must inform the way everyone – including the fashion and clothing industry – works in the years to come.”

According to Mardal, steadily stronger forces are in play to turn this development around – also in Norway.

“The major clothing companies are so stuck in their pattern that they cannot easily change their business models, Norway, on the other hand, is a relatively young fashion nation. We have everything to win by embracing an entirely new paradigm,” he says.

Mardal lists a number of advantages that can give Norway and the Nordic countries a boost as a fashion region in the years ahead.

“We have the technology, the knowledge and the intention – in addition to a long design history, good raw materials and clean energy. Now all of these must be woven together into a strong initiative,” he says.

In response to this, Norwegian Fashion Hub has launched Oslo Fashion & Textile Lab. This collaborative project will explore how the textile industry can use emerging technology and digitalisation to design and produce new clothing sustainably.

Project participants include the Norwegian companies Helly Hansen, Norrøna, Livid Jeans, Days Like This and Lillunn represented by designer Elisabeth Stray Pedersen.

“My business is almost like a live research project, only with money involved,” says Elisabeth Stray Pedersen.

The designer has established herself in recent years with a collection of locally produced woollen clothing. Pedersen bought a factory that has manufactured clothing for the Lillunn brand since 1953. The factory is now located in Oslo, and Pedersen uses it to manufacture pieces for both Lillunn and her own brand ESP.

“My motivation has been to obtain better insight into what can be done throughout the entire production process. Using and building a framework around local resources has brought to light potential sustainability challenges. Since I am so closely involved in production, these challenges affect me more directly. I have to think in a more integrated way when designing – whether it comes to waste or rational systems,” says Pedersen.

She points out that because her products are developed locally – with the help of advanced 3D technology – the way to the consumer is short.

“Thus we can put more money into raw materials and production, and the customer pays mainly for the item – and not the intermediaries. Increased demand will also enable us to refine and improve the quality and value of our designs – which will in turn strengthen the position of Norwegian wool.”

With limited production capacity and a relatively small, affluent customer group, Pedersen is open about the fact that she works under entirely different framework conditions than mass market companies.

“However, regardless of production volume, products must harmonise with the ecosystem. Every aspect of production, from energy use to waste management, must be examined to determine what can be improved,” she says.

“Much of the clothing industry is based on use of materials that can last a lifetime. The consumption pattern, meanwhile, is the direct opposite, with clothes that become outdated after one season. This creates challenges in connection with everything from design to waste,” she explains.

Pedersen will be sharing her experiences at Oslo Fashion & Textile Lab, where the aim is to learn from one another.

“I’ve noticed that attitudes towards cooperation are changing. In general, there is now much more knowledge sharing across companies and industries. Thanks to increasingly more advanced technology, we have the opportunity to build a smart, sustainable clothing industry in which things are done more simply and seamlessly,” says Pedersen.

She has also noticed a change in attitudes among her customers.

“It seems like more and more people appreciate knowing where their clothing comes from – which also gives them a better conscience. We also try not to be too tied to the annual seasons of the fashion industry, so that customers can see that the coats we make will remain stylish for many years,” Pedersen concludes.

Oslo Runway AW19 will be held in February 2019.

Photos from top: ESP AW18 show – Indigital; Ditte Kristensen – Lasse Fløde; Gisle Mariani Mardal – Heidi Widerøe; Elisabeth Stray Pedersen – Simon Skreddernes.