An insightful conversation with PhD Frederik Larsen, co-founder of Infuturum, about his career as a researcher on fashion, sustainable business practices, design, second-hand markets, and strategic consultancy; helping organizations to prepare for a just and sustainable future.

A path towards sustainability is a long-term approach, however, it demands immediate actions to reach the final goal. A diffuse perspective for some businesses who that want to get into the action, though do not know where, and how to start. 

The compulsiveness of the current fashion system is an end-road, a systemic change is mandatory in order to build new ways of doing business. This purpose is rooted at strategic consultancy, In Futurum, founded by Frederik Larsen and Moussa Mchangama. A tandem with complementary backgrounds, advising companies and brands on how to be sustainable in an effective and clear way. 

Their method is to create strategies in a research-based scenario, finding valuable knowledge that can drive immediate change. Additionally, they make an analysis to improve all business processes, and communication inside and outside of the company. 

Recently, they published the report, New Ways for Responsible Business: Sustainable Fashion in Action: a study covering business models and sustainability practices in Scandinavian fashion companies, with significant conclusions and insights about key elements for mapping strategies inside companies, and frameworks to work with.

Mchangama, is MA in Modern Culture & Communications from The University of Copenhagen, he has spent the last decade combining writing, critique, branding and concept development with social activism. Larsen, holds a PhD from the Copenhagen Business School in Organizational Anthropology, does academic research and has worked with responsible businesses for a decade.

Interviewer: What are the essential topics to develop a real sustainable mindset into a fashion or lifestyle business?  

Frederik Larsen: The work we did for Copenhagen Fashion Week reflects a lot of those concepts that we have worked with. There has been a tendency to focus on one area;that can be a good place to start for a lot of fashion and lifestyle businesses, for example, areas can include materials, textiles or plastic use. 

We wanted to unfold or to open up the discussion to all different areas that are necessary, and with the focus on the technical side of sustainability

A lot of brands, fashion designers, and companies tend to think that everything is about what you can measure, and how you can lower your carbon emission, for example, it is part of the picture for sure, but if we do not start talking about consumption, if we do not talk about design, if we do not talk about lifestyles and strategy when we are in a business setting, things will not change fundamentally. 

Therefore, we have to approach it from a much more holistic point of view. It is about the environmental aspects; it is about from technical solutions, to technical problems, and cultural problems as well, about consumption levels. 

Sustainability has to do with the way we think about business. This paradigm of focusing on economic growth as the main driver of innovation and development, has to change. What we are proposing is not in opposition to creating a solid economy or a solid company, it is about changing the mindset. 

The simple focus on economic growth limits what you can do in terms of creating a new set of products and innovation, as well as in terms of reaching your audience. Nevertheless, we do see many companies focusing exclusively on environmental sustainability, and overlooking the fact that there is also a huge social aspect within, such as consumption and fair wages, especially in the fashion industry.

 “It all comes down to looking at the big picture, and that essentially means to understand that there is an environmental sustainability side, an economic sustainability side and a social side inside of the companies”

I: As an advisor, what is the roadmap to start in the right path of change? What would you recommend for mapping sustainable practices?

FLYou always have to begin where you have the most impact and where you have the most control, basically. We do help companies map out what they actually do. Smaller companies, for instance, know what is happening inside the business itself and in their own offices. However, for a lot of them, it is very difficult to get access or to understand what is the entire impact they have across the whole supply chain or consumption.

We, as a consultancy, tend to focus on strategy, on business development, on design itself, on sourcing, and on communicating your efforts to your customers. It is very simple, but it is very effective.

There are a lot of things you cannot control, especially as a small company. That does not mean that you cannot have an impact in the market, or that you cannot change how you -as a brand- engage with these areas. 

We always create a link between what drives the company and the people inside the brand, such as employees and the owners. Because it is very difficult to create change if it is not aligned with coherent values and the way you do business. A lot of them tend to be more marketing-oriented. 

Brands must engage everyone inside the company. Ask questions such as, how can we build or create something that takes better care of the materials that we as a company use? Or make sure that the work environments are safe throughout the production, for example. 

New Ways for Responsible Business: Sustainable Fashion in Action: a study covering business models and sustainability practices in Scandinavian fashion companies

For mapping sustainability in action, companies must address four main areas of impact and integrate this practice as a core part of its strategy: Production Control, Design and Anti-Consumption, Materials and Impact, Longevity and Knowledge Sharing

Some actions for change, according to the report, are to tackle consumption, create decent job opportunities, get rid of synthetic materials and create new business models based on a holistic perspective “Understanding how environmental, social and economic challenges are interconnected is necessary to set a direction”.

That perspective includes rethinking fashion business from another point  of view, “re-establish true value in the products and in the business model itself”, creating responsible investments as “financial interests are often at odds with sustainability efforts”, and aims to change the “business as usual” way of producing things. 

For that goal, it is mandatory to understand the full life cycle, how we produce and what would happen in time with this product? In that sense, a purposeful use of technology can take an important part of the process helping technically and socially. A full integration of tools to build resilient business structures “to cope with the volatility, by creating stronger relationships across the value chain”.

I: Your findings (in the report) portray a certain daily basis for Scandinavian brands, do you think some of them could be extrapolated to other realities?

FL: It is very nice to see that some of the insights we have collected and the analysis we have done has gained attention from brands globally, actually. We have been working with these Scandinavian companies in this context, but it could have been other companies. 

Most of the brands are international, in the sense that their products are sold globally. However, this is not about “a Scandinavian way” of doing anything. It is about the everyday activities within these companies, so hopefully it reflects a lot of what people do. 

We wanted to portray that the challenges that they have are very similar in a lot of different companies. The main purpose of doing this research was, in fact, to start sharing.

In the research, there are some examples of successful practices, some others about the difficult stages. Hopefully others can use that to be braver in terms of setting actions. Also, it is relevant to talk about what brands are doing, even though not all actions are perfect and even though it is not at full capacity in terms of what their goals are.

“I definitely believe that there are a lot of approaches and the way different brands work with sustainability initiatives or with sustainability strategies can be influential, inspirational, to others”

I: What must brands -big and small- learn to start thinking from this holistic perspective? Is the fashion system really rebooting? Are the challenges equal for all?

FL: It is an interesting question, as we often hear from smaller companies that the big ones can do the transformation because they have enough money, or the funds for it, and they can make a global impact; and then, on the other side, we hear from the bigger companies-“Oh! It is so difficult to change! small brands have it easier”. There is always a “it-is more difficult-for-us-than-for-others” response, I think that is a general thing, we tend to compare ourselves to others without realising how challenging it is for them as well. 

One of the main points, in terms of the global fashion industry, is that the growth we have seen in the last years and the global expansion that seems to be growing continuously, is unsustainable in itself. 

That kind of growth has been driven by the push of the fast fashion structures, to be implemented almost across the board, no matter the size or the type of company. This has created a pace, in terms of timing and trends, that translates into pressuring prices. Those pressures just moved further down the supply chain, which is affecting billions of people globally. All of this has to change. 

I believe that we could start by looking at how the fashion industry has changed already. That is one of the points we are trying to get across as well. Creating a change is very difficult, I acknowledge that, but it has changed enormously in the last 20 years, and especially the last 10 years.

“The Fashion Industry can change again we want it to, that is the first thing. Do people want to show that they are doing something? Or are they actually making changes?”

I: You have written about second-hand markets, business practices and fashion to name a few topics in your doctoral thesis. How did you get into this field? What were your motivations as a researcher?

FL: I spent more than 10 years working in research in the social sciences, business management, and in the field of sustainability-broadly speaking- and fashion. I found this to be a place where you can look at industries from a human perspective; anthropology is very much focusing on human activity and culture, with an understanding that business is a world of its own. 

There was a very small dedicated research group locally working on second-hand markets back then, and now, the subject has grown enormously. All fashion companies are looking into how we can create resale platforms, and extend the lifespan of their products, so, it is nice to see that the industry is getting there. 

I focused on the second-hand markets, also outside of the  fashion industry. What happens to products when there is no creation involved? How do you create value from products that basically start off as waste or trash? Do they then become something through problem solving or marketing? 

We are using this holistic approach at In Futurum, in the sense of looking at the full lifecycle perspective of products are and saying: “it is not enough that we focus on how they perform in production”. We must also focus on the design phase, marketing, and specially, as soon as a consumer enters, put our attention at the end of the life cycle of products, as sometimes we do not know what happens to them.

The  knowledge that came from doing academic research and publishing, have created the foundation for how we approach advising on sustainability, because I am not a natural scientist, but I am educated as a scientist, this allows me to look for the right kind of information, and know how to assess it.  I think that perspective is so important,  companies need to trust that if they do this, it will have a positive impact and they can base future decisions on that knowledge. 

“The Fashion Industry has been quite under-researched for a long time. A lot of academics have looked upon Fashion as being too frivolous or unimportant to actually study”

I: In your point of view, what are the research areas in fashion and sustainability in the future?

FL: I do think that across a lot of different industries, including fashion, the intersection between people and technology is definitely something there is a lot of research on, however, a lot of it starts with the assumption that we need to figure out what technology can do for us. This common set up neglects the important question. It cannot do everything for us. What we are doing right now is trying to implement new technologies wherever possible, instead of looking at wherever is most necessary for the best.

How does it affect us? What can technology actually do to drive human development and interaction between people? To improve the quality of life, life circumstances, and health… Or to improve some of the existing horrible working conditions? Instead of focusing on how we can implement technology that makes it easier and faster for people to have access to  consumer goods. I think that is a huge issue.

There has been a tendency to focus either on fashion as a cultural system or as a business. A lot has to do with representation and looking at the artistic and stylistic parts. The other side is about how the industry works. Those two are obviously connected, as technical and social representation coexist. 

A huge area for research is waste management on textile waste. The amount of textile waste is staggering. We have to go all the way back to consumption, design, sourcing, into the material production and question the areas that are creating and accumulating all of this waste, analyse those areas, instead of just saying: “how can we recycle it?” Because that is clearly not the end of the problem. 

As a conclusion, I think we need to focus on how to radically change the entire fashion system. We need to change the conventional understanding that fashion is about excluding people, and include everybody instead of trying to tell them that they are not good enough. 

That systemic change is what we need right now. Understanding the cultural and social aspects, and combining that with a deep knowledge that is research-based, this is important to bring things forward.