3 surprising themes: my take on Sustainable Innovation 2021 conference

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Fig. 1 Slide from author's presentation at Sustainable Innovation 2021 conference


The Centre for Sustainable Design at University for Creative Arts[1] (UCA) hosted its 23rd international conference from March 15-21, 2021 all online, and I was fortunate to be one of the 50 speakers, with over 400 delegates from 26 countries. The delegates consisted of a mix of academia, industry and journalists. The industry aspect ranged from start-ups, consultants, research & development, not for profits and some large corporations. This provided a good amount of varied viewpoints, and interesting discussions. The title of the conference is ‘Accelerating Sustainability in Fashion, Clothing, Sportswear & Accessories’.

Being online there was a lot of flexibility to attend as much or as little as you wanted, some delegates coming for a few segments, or one day and others for the full seven days. A networking event was offered every day, which I attended for the first few days and met some lovely people. The event was not recorded which is unusual for these times, but I quite like the idea that not everything has to be captured in our digital realm for long amounts of time and the reduced footprint.


There were a lot of themes that emerged during the seven days of conference, for me three that stood out:

1. Indigenous knowledge

2. Disconnection

3. Social

Ideas about learning from Indigenous or First Nations knowledge and ways of doing came up repeatedly. Sage Davis, herself descendent of First Nations peoples in North America and Dr. Elizabeth Bye of University of Minnesota (U of M) presented a wonderful paper about gratitude and reciprocity. Bye and Davis worked with several makers of First Nation descent. Ideas around bloodlines and family were strong. “Everybody beads,” said Bye, and beadwork which takes hours to complete is treasured and passed down through generations. One maker shared that they never bead when in a bad mood. Considerations such as these are different to our Global North ideas of production. Bye and Davis suggested it’s not too late to humbly learn from First Nations peoples and that can help us gain sight of what is truly valuable.

The next idea thread is one of disconnection. We as consumers are disconnected from the supply chains involved with the garments we consume. However, as highlighted by Frankie Philips of Tobefrank, in her candid and insightful presentation, so are many high street retailers. A behind the scenes look at garment manufacturing included examples of ‘incentive lines with no incentives’ describing how higher pay for those making our clothes doesn’t always equate to a living wage. “Efficiency doesn’t have to be miserable,” said Philips, showing a photo of another garment factory where the set up was much different. Here the management had talked to those doing the work, and design the working set up around their comments and inputs. The people in this set up seemed happier, probably having had an input into how they are working, plus it’s a good feeling to be listened to.

Thirdly, and linked to the previous two ideas about indigenous knowledge and disconnection are ideas around the social aspect of fashion & clothing production. Who are the people in our fashion & clothing supply chains and eco systems and are they well cared for? In addition to Philips talk as mentioned, others including myself raised the concept that the people working in all aspects of our supply chain are often forgotten or not realised at all. As part of my research I created an intervention using the credit reel you see at the end of a movie as inspiration. As shown in (Fig. 2) I made an equivalent imagined version for a T-shirt, the reel is long and takes time to watch, helping to emphasise there are lots of people involved in making every T-shirt we wear.

Fig. 2 Mock up of an imagined credit reel for a T-Shirt (Author)

Christine Goulay, Head of Sustainable Innovation at Luxury group Kering spoke about adding a social metric into their organisational targets. Already incorporating environmental impact into the group’s profit and loss metrics, this would be one step further to fully understanding their impact on people and planet. This for me is reminiscent of the quote attributed to Peter Drucker “What gets measured gets managed.”[2] Incorporating metrics associated with environmental and social goals seems like a great way to demonstrate the organisations commitments and provide leadership with tangible motivation for change.


These are just limited examples per theme, which were echoed throughout the event, from the keynote speakers, through the research papers and discussions. The research paper that I presented ‘Crafting a Connection’ also incorporated these three threads of thought, which is perhaps why they resonated so strongly for me. However, I think they are important as they provide other ways of looking at the massive challenges, which face the global fashion industries and all the associated entities. They also highlight aspects, which have not featured much, if at all in our current discourses to date.

If we keep on doing what we are doing, in the ways we are used to, nothing much will change. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to different perhaps, uncomfortable and diverse approaches. For me this conference highlighted the importance of looking, or being open to inspiration from the not 'the usual' places: the past, indigenous or First Nation communities, other cultures in general, bird poop that lands in front of you on the pavement[3], to name a few. Being open to other world-views/other ways of being from where ever that inspiration comes from is one key ingredient needed to accelerate the change highlighted in the conference title.

Just to note…

To organise and run a seven day online conference is a massive undertaking. I’d like to acknowledge all the hard work of Martin Charter, Ros Caruthers and team who did such an incredible job: your hard work is appreciated!

[1] Conference website can be accessed here: [2] Prusak, L (2010) Harvard Business Review “What can’t be measured” accessed at [3] Luis David Roa Cepeda of Saucolors gave a wonderful presentation about how bird poop inspired natural dye development. More information here:


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