Eva Kruse: “Do Not Rebuild An Old Home. Build a New One”

Eva Kruse: “Do Not Rebuild An Old Home. Build a New One”

The CEO of Global Fashion Agenda, on why fashion must change its mind, matter, material and mindset. Lexicon too 

he CEO Agenda 2020, Covid-19 Edition released last month by the Copenhagen based Global Fashion Agenda (GFA)  is among the few, urgent and precision-targeted reports of the last few months. With a clear eye on resilience-building and recovery of the global fashion industry, it makes a pragmatic case for fashion leaders to re-evaluate method, cadence, investment, fabric and value to resonate with what the world is currently seeking. Change that was long overdue, environmentally and ecologically, but has now been thrust upon us by the pandemic putting fashion in an inescapable witness stand

With contributions from McKinsey & Company as well as insights gathered from consumer and supplier research, and views of industry stakeholders, the CEO Agenda 2020 offers six opportunities to fashion CEOs to rebuild the industry with sustainability at the core.

An eloquently argued foreword by Eva Kruse, chief executive and founder of the 11-year old GFA, summarises the indispensable need to make sustainability the core of fashion business by “rethinking and rebuilding systems”.


Photo: Global Fashion Agenda

Eva Kruse, CEO of Global Fashion Agenda, on stage for a welcome briefing at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019.

Kruse who has been relentlessly working for over a decade with a zealous team to drive home a single point set on the axis of multi-faceted agenda of sustainability spoke to TVOF last week over a Zoom call from Copenhagen.

Her unflinching conviction about the cause lit up her face as she spoke for a new lexicon, an optimised (instead of blandly minimised) fashion industry and why she believes things will change. Edited excerpts.

There is an ongoing struggle between survival of a fashion business and sustainability, a question even more pertinent now. Does sustainability need money?

That has been a general perception that sustainability needs money, even we started the work more than 10 years back and the talk earlier was mostly about CSR. It was a department in the company, run with a group of people who would operate their own little beast while the rest of the work would go on in other departments. True sustainability though is about a company’s mindset, to bring it to the core of your business and not make it an addition or an errand that costs money or make things complicated. It is a way to look at business and create a business model from within. Now, we also see that those with a lean supply chain—which is one of the parameters of sustainability—are surviving the crisis the best. The closer you are to your supply chain, the stronger you are in a crisis situation. Sustainability in essence is good business, a way of creating a more efficient business model. In many sustainability measures, environmentally, it is about minimising the volume, products, and fabrics. It is about optimising in a sense. When you speak about sustainability through optimising terms, you create a more resilient model, not just environmentally or socially but financially too, that does not cost more money.

But it does cost bandwidth. I appreciate that we are at a time when brands are barely surviving, so to even grasp this is difficult. But this is what I would say to a company leader: it is not about rebuilding your house as it looked before but to build a new one. To capture this moment of such a huge crisis is to really rebuild something that is future proof and it is the best opportunity our industry has. It is not just the virus; we were looking at other catastrophes any way. The loss of biodiversity, for instance.


Photo: Global Fashion Agenda

The cover of CEO Agenda 2020, Covid-19 Edition.

In the COVID-19 edition of the CEO Agenda 2020, you talk about “changing the lexicon of fashion”. Please elaborate as fashion’s repetitive vocabulary and communication is indeed limiting.

Right now, we have the opportunity to discuss the value proposition of society. I think everybody, regardless of the size of their wallets, is reconsidering value. Whether it is quality of things, the time, or family asking: ‘if I had to keep something, what is it that I value most’. In that sense, fashion had become a very fast commodity. Something we were taking and disposing of fast. So fashion has an opportunity to reposition its value in society. Of course, there will be some people who would go back to their usual patterns but a lot of us are thinking what are we going to buy and that is a very healthy pause.

Even before the virus hit, we were looking at the trajectory for the industry and the latest figures that we put up said that the fashion industry would grow 81 per cent in volume by 2030. That is not possible with the given resources in terms of water, land, earth, so we would have to look at a different business model anyway. This pause has given us a moment to shift the cadence, also look at the language of fashion.

The tendency, at least in most parts of the world, is to deliver goods for Fall as early as April, way before the consumer is in a fall mindset. In a way, it makes the goods that have just been delivered—Spring/Summer—matter little. So they are discounted. This is an evil cycle, which creates overproduction and overconsumption. That is what we are looking at right now, with the huge inventories fashion brands are sitting upon. We have created business models where discounting actually helps make more money. If there is a 60 per cent discount, people buy more.

Coming back to cadence, it should be about delivering smaller batches, less discounting and giving back the respect to a product. We respect that things have a price. I am not just talking about luxury. This is even for cheap clothes. Why should they be discounted? That is why some new business models are very interesting, where reselling, reusing, recycling is potentially where the industry can roll. Who wouldn’t want to sell the same T-shirt five times, if you can take it back and sell it again? Or remake it. It is time to stop the earlier trajectory. The industry has an opportunity to explore a new language. Especially now, when consumers are very receptive.


Photo: Global Fashion Agenda

A visitor exploring the Innovation Forum during Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019.

The GFA recently announced the Digital Online Matching initiative for brands to connect with sustainable solution providers. Exactly what India too needs now. How does this work?

Actually, matchmaking is something we have done as an organisation for more than 10 years but mostly in a physical room. Back in the day when we were called the Danish Fashion Institute, we would fly in a group of German agents and match them with appropriate brands from the Danish fashion community, after asking about the nature of their needs. We borrowed this concept from speed dating services. People in the room would get 20 minutes to present their brand—usually you do not need more than that to figure out if you want to go ahead with the relationship. We repeated that experience for the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. We had a foyer in the grounds, innovation booths with solution providers. Prior to the Summit, we could collect information from participants who needed solution providers. The type of company they have, their needs—was it about materials, manufacturing, consultancy, digital solutions, also the volume and size. With that information, we look for innovators and solution providers. Now that we cannot physically do this in corona times, we thought about replicating it in a digital room. There are two parts to it. One is an open webinar-based section where people can listen in and meet the innovator. The other is those who have signed up for matchmaking, we look at their needs in batches and find solutions there.

Instead of collections for every season and products of all kinds, should fashion rethink towards specialisation and expertise? Will it offer some course correction or lead to a new kind of chaos?

We definitely see those kinds of businesses pop up at the moment. Specialised, focused businesses and I think they truly have a market. It is a little bit like buying glasses from a company that specialises in it, rather than buying them from someone originally good at creating clothes. There is definitely a market for niche and new formats instead of the broad, big collections that have a thousand different items. Probably we are going to see both kinds being produced across the value chain. However, if we are talking to a smaller business or designers, we would definitely advise them to create specialised products. Honestly, we do not need another fashion brand, unless there is something unique to offer, something that is not out there, or really cuts through the noise.


Photo: Global Fashion Agenda

Visitors in the Design Studio, during Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019.

The CEO Agenda 2020 says CEOs should be “closer to supply chains”. Does “closer” mean CEOs should publicly put out where and whom they are sourcing from?

Page one in the sustainability textbook should be about traceability and transparency. You have got to know who you are working with. You should be able to trace your product all the way back not just to the embroidery, but also to the fields, to the farm—it starts there. I appreciate it is a difficult task; if you are a small, or medium sized company based in the UK for instance, you work through layers of agents that represent pools of manufacturers. But, it is possible and that’s where companies need to start. It is critical.

The TVOF India Sustainability Report 2020 found that many Indians were reluctant to buy used fashion. They were concerned about skin allergies and hygiene related issues. The pandemic has put the second-hand industry into further consideration. How do sustainability leaders like yourself address such concerns?

I do not know how to break through cultural differences but look at big rental platforms like Rent the Runway. They are now also among the biggest dry-cleaning companies too, as it is important to secure how people feel. Then there are material sciences, experiments with fabrics that self-clean, where the smell will not stay etc. I also think there are certain things that are easy to resell but if it is a pair of jeans, they become a little more personal since you don’t wash them a lot. Like T-shirts. On the other hand, bags, shoes, accessories should be fine to go as used fashion.

Personally, I hardly buy anything new. I only buy vintage and I get nice brands that I can’t afford otherwise at a third of the price. My daughter who is 18, has her profile on a few reselling platforms; she constantly has packets coming in and out, as she buys and resells, follows girls whose style she likes. She uses these pieces for a few months and then resells them. The next generation have adapted to used fashion and are fluent. And now it can be so easily delivered. Even brands want to be a part of the reselling cycle and make money out of it, so why not. The other part is the rental model. Mostly, men like rental models as they are precise with what they may be looking for—dark pants, certain kind of shirts and so on.


Photo: Global Fashion Agenda

(L-R) An ISKO representative with Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary, Eva Kruse, and Christina Iskov, Programme Manager of Global Partnerships at the CFS19 Innovation Forum.

Should fashion have a new set of professionals? Sensitivity officers, behavioural experts? Not the regular HR or sustainability heads but leaders trained in human behaviour.

I appreciate there are sustainability leads in many companies, but these measures need to be embedded in chief sourcing heads as well as supply chain and marketing heads, so that it is not disconnected from the rest of the business. But yes, there is something about understanding culture, the sensitivity of diversity and inclusion and how a company must be positioned. So in the transition to the new normal, your point is correct. It would be very helpful for fashion brands to open up their minds that way.

Do you really believe things will change?

Yeah, obviously, otherwise, I would not be here 24×7, all year round working on it. But I am also an optimistic person. I do believe we are capable of creating change. Of course I was worried to see the devastation that this humanitarian crisis has brought over us. In the Western world too, millions of people are losing their jobs but I am worried for supply chain workers in developing nations. Yet, this crisis has also shown us how globally connected we are and hopefully that feeling sits with us for a time and we make changes that are needed. It is striking that we need this kind of moment to wake up to reality. I have high hopes that not only politicians, but also people in general feel there is something we can do. The consequences of the coronavirus are mostly results of the actions (or non-actions) we have taken. So regardless of our politicians, or the global, environmental catastrophes ahead of us, if we all do something, we can get back to that feeling of being in power and feeling empowered. I do believe in change. We have so much knowledge, and we need visionary leaders. That is why we put up the COVID-19 special edition for CEOs. We need them to get into boardrooms to make radical changes.