The pace of action cannot be determined by the last to act

February 22, 2021

An interview on sustainable fashion with Nicolaj Reffstrup, the Founder of GANNI and Ulrika Modéer, Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP.

Fashion is a trillion-dollar industry, employing an estimated 300 million people along the value chain. Given its scale, a sustainable fashion industry can be a significant contributor to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And yet the impact that the 100 billion items of clothing that are produced every year is having on people and the planet is significant: unfair or even unsafe working conditions, land degradation, deforestation, and more; UNDP works across a range of areas to address many such challenges.

Action across the industry is also evident through initiatives such as the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and the Fashion Pact. There are companies demonstrating approaches that can truly make sustainability a fashion statement. In 2021, UNDP will be talking with fashion industry leaders about how they are addressing some of the most complex challenges in the industry. To get things started, Ulrika Modéer, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP’s Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy spoke to Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of GANNI after Copenhagen Fashion Week. 

Ulrika: Nicolaj, let me start by asking you, is GANNI a sustainable fashion company?

Nicolaj: We don’t call ourselves a sustainable brand, because we recognize the inherent contradiction between being in an industry that thrives and is driven by newness, and the concept of sustainability. Instead, we view it as our moral obligation to become a more responsible version of ourselves.

Ulrika: How has GANNI worked to integrate sustainability, and contributions to the SDGs, into its business?

Nicolaj: We chose to work towards Goal #5 Gender Equality, #12 Responsible Production and Consumption, and #13 Climate Action, and committed to the targets set out in UNFCCC. The last two years have seen us introduce more than 40 responsible initiatives aligned to these goals. We have introduced GANNI Repeat, where our customers can rent clothes, we signed up for the Ellen MacArthur new plastics economy commitment, and relooked at how we offset carbon emissions, and more. We also took up much smaller initiatives such as using our used coffee grinds to grow mushrooms and switching to renewable energy. Growing mushrooms won’t save the planet single-handedly, but it’s a great daily reminder for people to be more responsible and promotes everyday micro activism. Any step, however small, matters, and small steps now matter more than those done later.

Ulrika: In order to achieve SDGs, governments may need to increase regulations to safeguard or ensure protection of human health, natural resources, and livelihoods. How can governments create incentives for companies to stay, especially when it means higher production costs than perhaps other countries?    

Nicolaj: I have always said that politicians should impose higher taxes for unsustainable business, whether they be social or environmental. The industry needs more accountability, and this is something GANNI welcomes. If we saw these kinds of bold moves from the government, this would also push the industry into finding solutions to existing problems. We can already see that the European Union’s impending Extended Producer Responsibility initiative has started necessary conversations. Companies of course will also face challenges. A more sustainable piece of clothing may cost more.

Ulrika:  Change would also be in line with the increasing consumer demand for greater transparency and sustainability.  What can consumers expect from GANNI?

Nicolaj: We believe fashion can be a force for good, and a vehicle for change. We want to make better choices, to make it easier for our community to make better choices as well. We’ve seen an increase in interest from our community, asking us more questions and getting more comfortable with calling us out when they don’t think we are addressing key issues related to sustainability. Our ambition is to create a collection that does not harm the environment when it's produced or worn, or during its afterlife. Last year we worked in UNDP’s programme, the SDG Accelerator, for small and medium-sized enterprises to start making this a reality and help fast-forwarding the mapping of GANNI’s supply chain and fabric choices.

GANNI Lab is another process we launched and led to significant achievement: we increased our use of organic, certified and recycled fabrics from just four percent in July 2019 to 52.5 percent in August 2020, and we’re set to reach more than 70 percent in 2021.

Making an impact-free collection as a commercial fashion brand is virtually impossible right now, at least if it needs to be at price acceptable for consumers and scalable for a large market. Next on our list is traceability. We made a commitment to 100 percent visibility and traceability in every stage of our supply chain by 2023.

Ulrika: The type of transformational change needed in the industry will require the work of more than just a few actors. What advice do you have for companies that want to be more sustainable but are worried to risk the investment?

Nicolaj: If you want to take real action you have to risk making changes and making commitments publicly. Putting it out there helps you stay committed and keeps you on track to doing the work. We’ve definitely gotten it wrong a few times. But our transparency lines up with our moral obligation to do better. We want to increase our use of sustainable fabrics, but these materials are more expensive than the conventional option - a premium the consumer might not be willing to pay. So, companies need to be willing to invest here.

Ulrika: Thank you, Nicolaj, for your time and candid responses. I think the message is clear, that change is possible, where there is commitment and investment. While GANNI is honest in admitting that there is still plenty of work to do, perhaps the most important part is that the work has started. There is an urgency to addressing unsustainable and unfair practices in the fashion industry, and the pace of action cannot be determined by the last to act. Beyond the environmental and social benefits, there may also be business advantages. As countries adjust regulations to reflect their sustainable development goals, and consumers demand greater transparency, it may very well be the brands that have a head start in integrating sustainability that will have the lead in this new space.   

Based in Copenhagen and owned and run by husband-and-wife team Creative Director Ditte Reffstrup and Founder Nicolaj Reffstrup, GANNI has developed exponentially over recent years with its Scandi 2.0 sense of style full of personality and contrasts. GANNI is all about making our community who wear our clothes feel even more confident and capable of anything. For us, acting responsibly is a moral obligation. We are on a journey to minimize our social and environmental impact and strive to be a more responsible version of ourselves everyday. In 2020, we launched our GANNI Gameplan setting ourselves 44 tangible goals to be reached by 2023 across four main pillars; People, Planet, Product and Prosperity.