Experts and customers alike are wondering how Covid will affect sustainable fashion. Here’s what I’ve learned
By Chere Di Boscio
No one – except seemingly Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci – could have predicted the profound effects the Coronavirus is currently having on our lives. Almost overnight, millions upon millions of people around the world have found themselves unemployed. Billions are locked into their homes, and nearly everyone on the planet is full of a sense of dread for what is to follow these unprecedented lockdowns. There will almost certainly be an extreme economic depression, never-before-seen levels of unemployment, and more technocratic control over our lives.
That being said, it’s hard to say exactly what the future holds, unless you have a special gift with a crystal ball. But if we focus on specific areas, such as the future of sustainable fashion, it may be a bit easier to make some predictions based on what we know so far.
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about how Covid will affect sustainable fashion, and have spoken to several experts in the field. Here’s what I’ve gathered.
Contractions and Cancellations
Sustainability in fashion has grown, especially over the past five years or so. When I started this magazine in 2013, there were very few brands to feature, but today, I’m aware of hundreds of brands that are specifically focused on creating ethical and sustainable fashion.
Generally, it does cost more, for obvious reasons, but up to this point, it wasn’t really an issue. The American economy was growing steadily, with a 50 year low in unemployment statistics, and not even the prospect of Brexit could negate growth in the UK’s economy, for example.
Now, however, we face several major issues.
Some 6.3 million people have been temporarily laid off by 800,000 companies in the UK alone. The British economy has contracted 7% this quarter, and the IMF is predicting a global contraction that will rival that seen in the Great Depression. Some economic recovery is expected in 2021, but the extent of any new growth will likely depend on the policies that governments take to deal with Covid-19 and to stimulate the economy.
In terms of production, Covid will affect sustainable fashion makers hard. Garment makers are realising that due to the effects of Covid 19, global production chains are no longer practical, and as demand for clothing drops around the world, so do jobs. As Bloomberg reports, around 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh have had orders cancelled worth roughly $1.5 billion due to the pandemic. The AWAJ Foundation says that many factories in Bangladesh have been shut down indefinitely.
In short, Covid has affected garment workers in the worst way imaginable.
Tech Over People
But the news for garment workers gets even worse. Many companies are now talking about digitising production for ‘social distancing’ reasons, or to ensure more consistent production (after all, machines don’t get sick). But skeptics say this smells like an excuse to cut costs.
For example, Hilmond Hui, the Vice President of BombyX says the company is ‘currently exploring automation to reduce energy consumption per unit and increase output for each worker, in addition to new technologies for recycling and achieving carbon neutrality.’ While that may all sound peachy keen and green, let’s remember these ‘new technologies’ will be a major cause of even further unemployment around the globe.
Addressing the issue of automation’s threat to workers, Hui told Forbes: “To be frank, this has been a catch-22 for factories who want to protect the jobs of their workers, but given the added health precautions we need to enact, moving towards deeper implementation of these technologies is becoming the need of the hour.”
That may be Hui’s take on changes in the fashion industry, but I would argue that the more digitised production becomes, the more radical our definition of ‘ethical fashion’ is. Specifically: would you consider a brand that fires its human staff and replaces them with AI to be ‘ethical’, especially in a time of looming severe economic depression? I know how I would answer that question.
Sorry to say, but the news gets worse for garment producers. Fashion labels have been forced to renegotiate terms with their suppliers. According to this report, some 71% have already done so, often paying less than half the agreed price for their existing orders. Additionally, 64% of labels have asked for extended payment terms.
The consequences of this will surely be that garment workers, who are already paid a bare minimum, are likely to receive even poorer wages – or, to cut costs, be replaced by machines whenever possible.
Sadly, it seems that now, many of those pioneering ethical fashion brands may be on the way out.
According to The State of Fashion Report released by BOF and McKinsey, ‘the crisis will shake out the weak, embolden the strong and accelerate the decline of companies that were already struggling before the pandemic, leading to massive waves of consolidation, M&A activity and insolvencies. To secure their future, companies must adapt to the new market environment by evaluating divestment and acquisition opportunities to strengthen their core and capture whitespaces that emerge from the reshuffle.’
Translated, this simply means that larger corporations with stronger investment and resources are likely to buy out some of the luckier small brands. The unluckier ones will simply die.
How Coronavirus Will Affect Sustainable Fashion
Before the lockdown, companies were increasingly willing to spend more on sustainable business practices, under the assumption that ultimately, better ethics would translate into better sales. But as companies fight for survival, that may all well change.
As Karl-Hendrik Magnus, Senior Partner at McKinsey and Company in Frankfurt and leader of the Apparel, Fashion & Luxury Group said: “Sustainability has dropped off the agenda for the past few weeks at the top executive level in the industry, as even strong companies have had to fight for sheer existence.”
Francois Suchet, the Lead at Make Fashion Circular agrees. He has stated that one of the key threats to sustainability in fashion right now is that in times of insecurity and uncertainty, brands are more likely to go back to ‘proven (and less sustainable) approaches’.
Another way Covid will affect sustainable fashion is found in the fact that as people lose jobs, less disposable income is likely to mean that consumers will not only reduce their fashion purchases, but are less likely to buy more expensive sustainable and/or luxury fashion. Findings by Accenture in a survey they did of more than 3,000 consumers in 15 countries across five continents reveal that consumers are buying more personal hygiene and cleaning products, but fewer electronic, beauty and fashion items – let alone sustainable fashion.
This may change after lockdown, of course, but Accenture states that “… the findings indicate that many of the changes in consumer behaviour are likely to continue long after the pandemic.” And a recent report by McKinsey shows that when asked about what they planned to buy in May, consumers from the UK, Germany, France, Portugal, Spain and Italy marked apparel as ‘low’ on their shopping priorities.
The Brighter Side
That being said, the survey also noted that “in addition, the crisis is also causing consumers to more seriously consider the health and environmental impacts of their shopping choices”. This is backed up by other studies, too. For example, based on data McKinsey collected from 6,000 consumers across the UK, Germany, France, and Spain, it seems 16% of consumers would specifically seek out products with sustainable credentials once the shops reopen.
Author Marci Zaroff, who owns the sustainable fashion brand YES AND, also believes sustainability will be a major decision making factor for post-pandemic shoppers. She told me:
“I am very optimistic that fashion will continue to shift towards a more sustainable industry, as consumers are at home reevaluating and resetting their priorities—with a focus on healthier lifestyle choices. For brands and retailers to stay relevant, they will need to embrace transparency, while embedding social and environmental materials and manufacturing practices into their products and services—from source to story.”
Zaroff, who is also is the Founder and CEO of ECOfashion Corp including the home-décor company Farm to Home and MetaWear, believes that the government should particularly support sustainable fashion right now:
“It would be game-changing for our industry if the government took environmental initiatives into consideration by offering lower import duties for certified organic/sustainable materials and products. Other incentives could include much-needed support for research and development to propel sustainable innovations forward—in fashion, and beyond”, she asserts.
Fashion’s ‘New Normal’
There are other ways Covid will affect sustainable fashion, too. For example, Fashion Weeks as we know them now may soon become the stuff of distant memories.
In an interview with WWD last June, iconic designer Giorgio Armani announced that clothes, not venues, should be the focus of a Fashion Week, and criticised the idea of channeling money into costly shows at exotic locations around the world. “I don’t agree with this trend. I want to see the clothes, not where they are being shown — that is a spectacle. Now it’s not about what to design but where to show those designs. I find it ridiculous — not to speak of the travel costs,” he said
Well now, it seems that fashion shows are about to go virtual.
San Francisco Sustainable Fashion Week International (of which I am a part) was a pioneer in virtual fashion shows and seminars, as was Helsinki Fashion Week. And nearly forty years after its inception, London Fashion Week is about to reinvent itself as a digital only platform. The British Fashion Council announced this on their Instagram feed: “Open to all and merging womenswear and menswear in light of the current environment, for designers to tell their stories through collections, creative collaborations, podcasts and videos. Londonfashionweek.co.uk will be accessible to all audiences, embracing the cultural commentary, creativity and humorous spirit for which British Fashion and London are known.”
Could virtual Paris, Milan and New York Fashion Weeks be far behind?
Secondly, it’s likely that if sustainable fashion survives, the styles people choose will change. Our favourite sustainable luxury brands, like Flor et al and Amur, may see sales slide as the number of fancy events people gather at decline, while ethical athleisure brands like Ninety Nine Percent or Everlane may experience a surge in sales, as more people choose casual wear for working at home.
LovetheSales, which allows consumers to shop all the sales in one place, has been monitoring sales trends during the lockdown and note that the humble T-shirt has had the biggest rise in sales, up 225% year-on-year. Another notable rise has been in basic jumpers (+133%). Demand for activewear rose in May (+141%) and most notably, at the beginning of the lockdown, demand for loungewear rose a whopping 433%.
I have little doubt that loungewear will continue to be popular, since rising unemployment and more people working from home will cut demand for tailored clothes.
Stitching It All Up
There’s certainly a lot to consider here. How does it all add up?
There can be little doubt that extensive and extreme lockdowns have destroyed people’s livelihoods from Vermont to Vietnam, and have forced businesses to change. Larger companies will survive the coming depression, and may acquire flailing ones, but the sad reality is that many small businesses will be forced to close.
In order to cut costs, it’s likely that many fashion manufacturers will fire humans and ‘hire’ robots instead – those concerned with the ethics of fashion should avoid those brands and favour those who aim to maintain staff and support their livelihoods.
A lack of stable income and job security for billions of people around the globe will likely result in fewer new clothing purchases overall, and it seems logical to me that in times of hardship, there will be more of a focus on value for money than sustainability.
But that being said, I’d predict that more of us will try to sell our clothes and bags on sites like FarFetch or ThredUp to generate a bit of cash, and sales in cheaper secondhand items are likely to rise. Swapping and swishing events will probably increase in popularity, too, as will clothing rental.
Ultimately, whether or not sustainable fashion as we know it thrives, the reality is that with millions around the world bound to be unemployed and even penniless, production and consumption as we know them will surely plunge dramatically. The silver lining? At least a decline in consumerism will be more sustainable for the planet.
Do you have your own theories on how covid will affect sustainable fashion? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section, below!