What will COVID-19 mean for sustainable fashion?

3rd July 2020

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Can sustainability be the saviour of the fashion industry after the pandemic or will it become another casualty? Kathryn Manning reports

Before the huge disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been some sizeable shifts towards sustainability within fashion. Many designers, including Stella McCartney, and brands such as Patagonia have long been providing sustainable and cruelty-free products, along with a tangible commitment to producing less waste.

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh alerted consumers to the social conditions of garment workers in factories. High street brands are now having to provide greater transparency within their global supply chains, and improve their sustainable credentials – especially as fashion has been exposed across mainstream media as the world's second-largest polluting industry. New technology has prompted greater innovation, and online platforms such as SupplyCompass have been offering a designer-to-store service, greatly reducing waste and carbon footprints.

But according to a recent report, The State of Fashion 2020, published jointly by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, the industry is in an unprecedented crisis. And the recession that will inevitably follow the global pandemic is likely to dampen consumer enthusiasm. “Once the dust settles on the immediate crisis, fashion will face a recessionary market... As an industry, we are on red-alert.“

But there could be an upside. The report also suggests that “the resulting 'quarantine of consumption' could accelerate some consumer shifts, such as a growing antipathy toward waste-producing business models, and heightened expectations for purpose-driven, sustainable action.“

So, in the manner of Noah building his ark, could the more enlightened and sustainable businesses be most likely to survive? Or will the industry be overshadowed by cancelled orders and unused fabrics, creating a waste and unemployment crisis?

Coronavirus: Effects on the fashion industry

Dr Patsy Perry

Senior lecturer in fashion marketing in the Department of Materials, University of Manchester

“Lockdown has forced a slump in consumption“

It remains to be seen whether retailers will shelve their sustainability commitments due to the financial hit from the pandemic, but we have seen positive effects in terms of reduced emissions and water pollution as factories have shut. However, cancelled orders have had an effect on the poorest workers in the supply chain.

The lockdown has forced a slump in consumption. Billions of pounds worth of unsold stock is sitting in many warehouses, and the cost of storing it may not be viable. Some brands have been repurposing materials from previous collections or deadstock fabrics to make masks for consumers, as well as hospital gowns for medical workers. There is also the issue of cancelled orders sitting in producing countries such as Bangladesh, which now have no route to market.

Will consumers 'buy less, buy better' as we emerge from lockdown? Or will we see a return to overconsumption? The fashion business model is based on fast manufacturing, low quality and short life cycles, leading to waste and overconsumption. Consumers must see fashion as functional rather than entertainment and be ready to pay higher prices that account for its environmental impact, while retailers must shift to a slower paradigm.

Mary Creagh

Visiting professor, Cranfield University; Labour MP 2005-19

“Export and recycling markets are shut“

The collapse in global trade is having a huge impact on the textile recycling industry. The UK has one of the largest such industries in the world, with more than 1m tonnes of textiles discarded each year. Roughly one third goes to landfill or incineration, and the rest is collected by councils and charities and sold for reuse, recycling and export.

The Textile Recycling Association is seeking government help to deal with the collapse in trade to key export markets such as Kenya, which has banned used clothing imports. Oversupply and lack of demand have left recyclers with full warehouses.

This will have an effect on charities that have shut shops and seen revenues collapse, and councils that have spent millions tackling the emergency. As recycling centres and charity shops reopen, there will be a boom in clothing disposal and donation – but less clothing will be sold in charity shops because of social distancing, and export and recycling markets are effectively shut. Recyclers warn that they will be unable to pay councils and charities for the textiles they collect.

The extended producer responsibility levy of a penny on every garment, recommended by Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee, could help to reduce supply, subsidise collectors and protect jobs.

Flora Davidson

Co-founder of product development and production management platform SupplyCompass

“Supply chain mapping will see renewed focus“

While the momentum of some sustainability initiatives has slowed, I'm hopeful that the ambitious sustainable fashion goals made since 2019 will be approached with renewed vigour when lockdown ends. We're starting to see brands shift away from trends in favour of trans-seasonal, timeless pieces – reducing the amount of unsold products that are heavily discounted at the end of the season.

Supply chain transparency and mapping will see renewed focus. COVID-19 has forced brands to see the importance of controlling supply chains. If you don't know where every partner is, it becomes challenging to identify, anticipate and manage risk.

Where 'normal' ways of working have been turned on their head, there is opportunity for experimentation. I am hopeful that this crisis will be a catalyst for change. We're already seeing businesses explore new solutions. Look at how fast everyone has adapted in response to the pandemic – what other changes businesses could make?

I see an opportunity for brands to reinvent, adapt and experiment with new technologies and ways of working. Adapt to survive – perhaps some businesses may even prosper unexpectedly as a result.

Image credit: iStock


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