COVID-19 and the Fashion Industry – How the Pandemic is Encouraging Sustainability
Even in tough times, there are silver linings. Although the global pandemic is causing struggle and strife for the masses, the effects of the pandemic are changing the fashion industry for the better.
In the last few years, the fashion industry has found itself subject to mounting critique, stemming from its careless approach to the climate crisis, and the catastrophic environmental impact of ‘fast fashion’. Indeed, mass production, reduced costs, and speedy delivery have placed the fashion industry as one of the most polluting in the world, accountable for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions per year.
With the global economy experiencing a time of unprecedented stagnation, now more than ever, ethical, eco-friendly business models should be considered, encouraging the adoption of a ‘slow’ fashion concept as the fashion industry begins to rebuild.
Revisiting Business Models
The ‘fast fashion’ model is founded upon consumer demand for low cost and high-speed access to the newest trends. Through rapid design turnover and shorter production cycles, consumers are now able to refresh their wardrobes at an unpredicted rate, with widespread environmental consequences. According to McKinsey, annual global garment production now exceeds 100 billion units, using high volumes of water, whilst contributing to chemical and carbon pollution.
However, with an increasing awareness of the negative effects of fast fashion, almost 50% of shoppers online are now seeking out organic, ethical and vegan garments. Fashion designers are therefore taking the cost to the environment into consideration by launching brands that embrace sustainability.
According to Eileen Fisher, an American fashion designer who has been successfully leading her sustainable fashion brand since 1984, the global pandemic has highlighted that even ethical fashion brands produce too many items. With COVID-19 forcing the closure of 65 of her stores, Fisher is only surer in her beliefs, stressing the need to further simplify the supply chain from clothes, company structure and retail strategy.
“People say during this time they keep wearing the same things over and over because they are comfortable,” said Fisher. “I think we are going to find since we can’t go out shopping, we need a lot less and can live more simply.”
This reflects a shift in mindset, with consumer taste changing from mass market items to more exclusive and ethical. As a result, designers are increasingly trying to maintain a balance between the production and consumption to minimise waste and embrace sustainability.
“Waste, at the end of the day, is a design flaw. It doesn’t exist in nature,” says Gabriela Hearst, a luxury fashion designer and a strong sustainability advocate. She believes that the pandemic will be a good motive to reassess the values by which the industry measures its actions and grow with quality over quantity. With the fashion industry currently generating an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste each year, this change is crucial to building a carbon net-zero world, and an essential focus moving forward.
Increased Brand Transparency
Overproduction and the consequent abundance of inventory also remain of the industry’s most environmentally damaging practices, with British luxury brand Burberry faced public outrage for burning $37 million worth of excess product in 2017. However, Carry Somers, Founder of Fashion Revolution, and Sarah Ditty, Global Policy Director, believe that brands will be forced to modify their business models to survive the economic crisis, thus bringing positive change by mediating overproduction.
Additionally, Somers emphasises the continued importance of the public scrutiny of the relationship between brands and suppliers. With many retail brands withdrawing their orders and delaying payments to suppliers as a result of the pandemic, public awareness will encourage brands to be more accountable for their commitments, both socially and environmentally, galvanising positive change.
“We know that transparency is good for business; we know that it helps to protect the brand reputation ultimately,” says Somers.
Event Cancellations & Carbon Footprints
Finally, cancellation and postponement are the current reality facing fashion shows and events around the world, the impact of which is undeniable. Yet, thanks to companies such as Internet capabilities, a significant amount of fashion events have been able to demonstrate their collections online. Such a digital transformation have benefitted the consumer twofold, with shows becoming less expensive and more accessible.
Meanwhile, digital shows have also reduced the need to travel. A recent study from Zero to Market showed that staggering 241,000 tons of CO2 is generated when travelling for pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) wholesale buying that takes place during the fashion show weeks. Climate activists and sustainable business supporters expect this novelty to become a new normal for the greener good.
Overall, although challenging, CleanTech News remains hopeful that the current pause forced upon the fashion industry can be utilised, increasing sustainability and reducing the enormity of its current environmental impact.