An exploration into the impacts of Coronavirus (Covid-19) on the fashion industry and what the impacts may be in terms of ethics and sustainability.
It’s our birthday month! Like so many others around us, this year our birthday has come around during a very strange and uncertain time. We never thought we'd be celebrating our birthday amidst a life-threatening virus that has shut down the world, and during the grassroots, human rights movement Black Lives Matter - both of which will go down in history and have definitely given us a lot to think about.
We’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately on the world around us, and have decided that instead of looking back at our journey to get to this point as we originally intended, the perfect birthday blog post should instead look to the future and consider the possibilities of how the ‘new normal’ will impact the future of fashion.
WHAT IMPACTS HAS CORONAVIRUS (COVID19) HAD ON THE FASHION INDUSTRY SO FAR
Covid-19 has exposed many flaws in our fashion industry. There have been huge losses that will lead to stores and businesses closing, resulting in job cuts across the board. Fast fashion brands have behaved appallingly, making claims to be big 'community players' by shutting up their stores but continuing to sell online, encouraging people to buy loungewear to stay at home in and making and selling masks, and ‘support the NHS’ t-shirts that donate a % of their profits. Yet all of these have meant that the garment workers were forced to go into work when they did not feel safe and were not provided with any PPE or safety equipment. According to an article on BBC Asia, Bangladesh has been under lockdown since 26 March when transport was shut down and businesses closed. As of Tuesday, 28 April, there were 6,462 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 155 deaths, yet the garment industry was given an exemption from the lockdown and factories were kept open.
Then there is the #PayUpCampaign, many of the fast fashion giants decided they ‘couldn’t pay’ their suppliers and factories during this terrible public health and financial crisis, which left their frontline garment workers without pay to look after themselves and their families. It’s standard practice for brands not to pay for products until after they’re shipped, so when an order is put on hold or canceled, payments are also held or canceled. Instagram account and campaign Remake Our World posted recently ‘with shuttered retail stores and a loss on online sales, brands have been scrambling to protect their bottom lines. Unfortunately, that has been at the expense of their supply chain partners, refusing to take billions of dollars worth of ordered goods for which suppliers have already fronted the materials and labour costs.’
Last year the industry produced 140 billion new garments. Fast fashion companies have built their entire business models on the fact that we can’t stop shopping - shipping new items and new designs every month. This meant that when everything suddenly came to a halt, shops had to close and people started shopping less, brands refused to pay up for the collections their supplies had already fronted and started work on, asking for huge discounts.
There are also potentially a huge backlog of garments that are now considered ‘out of season’ by these brands, costing them huge amounts of money and an even bigger cost to the environment.
Many of the human rights issues already prevalent in the fashion industry are now so much worse. On top of not receiving adequate PPE or even payment so that they can live, lots of workers are not able to meet up and unionise because of the restrictions, or have lost their jobs without warning. This has been brought to light both during Fashion Revolution week that came about during Covid-19 and also performative allyship for brands during the BLM protests, with brands like Zara posting BLM solidarity black squares with empty captions claiming, ‘we stand for equality’.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF FASHION POST CORONAVIRUS IN TERMS OF ETHICS & SUSTAINABILITY?
The fashion system we have now doesn’t work, but as wonderful Mikaela Loach recently put into words so well that ‘We don’t live a ‘broken system’ we live in a system designed to benefit some people and harm others. Calling it a “broken system” just allows those in power to evade responsibility and blame. It just holds us back from creating real change.’ - Mikaela Loach.
With public callouts happening left right and centre, and many of the giants in the fashion industry facing huge monetary losses, surely this has to be where we stop, re-evaluate and everything changes for a cleaner and safer world for everyone.
Extinction Rebellion launched a #NoGoingBack campaign tackling various industries and criticising the government for bailing out environmentally damaging businesses. The big ask was for the government invest in green businesses instead. The No Going Back message is a good one. Now could be a turning point for some many industries, especially fashion, but will the fashion industry go back to business-as-usual focusing on speed and high- volume production? Will it collapse completely? Or will this be a turning point where brands adapt, reassess, and opt for inclusive and sustainable industrialization, prioritising innovation.
We spoke to a sustainable fashion consultant about what kind of fashion industry she wants to see emerge after this crisis is over. She said
"I want to see an overhaul of the linear business model which relies on always growing volume. It is inherently flawed and the amount of cash it's soaking up with less and less return is forcing change. I want to see a change where ALL consumers see the brand value in our wardrobe as an asset, an asset that has long term value even if our short term needs change. I want to see new circular business models which are demand led (this is called the pull strategy) and not push to avoid countless unwanted items being produced in the first place. If we do this everything we do produce will have long term usefulness to more than one owner."
This time has taken a huge toll on lots of fashion brands, big or small, especially those that really heavily on brick-and-mortar shops. Unfortunately, the already dying high street, will be affected further. Businesses that have thrived more during this time were ones who sold mostly online via e-commerce anyway or were quick to set this up. It will be interesting to see how this develops and whether it will have positive or negatives environmental impacts.
Also, businesses that own or have control over their whole supply chain and those who make to order weren't as impacted as they have more control over what is happening. Furthermore, small scales brands that manufacture locally who were able to continue to operate without relying on shopping delays.
Covid-19 has certainly forced the fashion industry to slow down which although can be seen as a good thing especially as we have been encouraging an end to overconsumption, we also know that a drastic, unexpected halt in manufacturing is not the answer. It is the most vulnerable, lowest paid people in the fashion supply chain that feel the worst effects from it.
However, as brands built their businesses back up again, this could be a chance to re-assess and look at ways they can create more resilient infrastructure that promotes inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. This would mean being less reliant on underpaid garment workers to churn out clothes at top speeds, looking at digitalising where possible, slowing down the number of garments and styles that are produced and start thinking about making clothes that are trans-seasonal.
We've also seen a rise in brands offering pre-orders which is an amazing way to cut down on waste. It means we only make what we need and the exciting wait for a piece really does help people to value their clothing. As a small brand, Zola Amour is able to make to order, which we do for this very reason.
The lock down has helped so many of us reset our values. By removing even our most fundamental freedoms - the right to life, to be able to meet close family, to work, earn, learn and play in safety - we realise how much we take for granted. The threat of disruption to the supply chains which feed us and provide us with life-saving medicines has been a wakeup call to show us how low down the priority list fashion retail comes and the demand for clothing has plummeted. Of course, it has pushed us to purchase online but mostly we have focused on our time on therapeutic activities to keep ourselves and our families well.
However, during Covid-19 there has been a huge rise in people opting for local, ethical, and sustainable businesses to spend their money with. Most of us have been spending and buying less, saving money because of the precarious financial uncertainty but when we do spend, lots of us did so as a political act, to help support businesses we believed in. Lots of small and sustainable brands were asking people to help them out through go-fund me's and pre-orders etc. which was really amazing to watch because it showed that people weren't just there for the quick fix of a shopping purchase, they really wanted to invest in the whole vision.
Unfortunately, when it comes to ethics within the fashion world, there is a worry that brands will channel the pressure they are under and will double down and do more of what they have always done. Sadly, the evidence is already there with the non-payment of suppliers and they don't seem to be paying much attention to their CSR policies.
It's so important we come together to continue to push for better transparency in the fashion industry. Also to apply pressure for our government to impose a tax on textiles going to landfill, as until then there is no deterrent strong enough to discourage the fast fashion or incentivise change. We've even heard that one of the big 4 consulting houses recommended retailers renegotiate terms with their suppliers to improve cash flow - as if that is even possible!
What we need is horizontal transparent supply chains where stakeholders share more equally in the margins - the closer we are to the raw material source, the leaner the margins. These are currently masked by the current structure of opaque vertical ones.
As well as using new organic materials that can be easily recycled, Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action, the Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation, and others are making the case for circularity. The global luxury Kering group are currently open sourcing the how, which is very exciting.
Another amazing thing to come out of the Coronavirus epidemic is Coopetition - a business term for “cooperative competition” whereby competitors share costs and work together on parts of their businesses in which they do not compete” (Combs & Davis, 2010). We've always felt very strongly that the future of the fashion industry has to be one that is built on collaboration and this blend of collaborating with competitors is a model Covid gave us in food and which is now coming into fashion. This is very exciting and definitely something we'd like to do more of. Brands like G Star Raw also open-sourced their recycled denim project findings to benefit all.
Things could go back to business-as-usual with a focus on speed and high- volume production. But we hope this slow fashion stance will stay and that post Covid-19 people will continue to care about the community, and want to support local, small businesses.
How do you think the impacts of Coronavirus will affect the fashion industry going forward. Has your changed to clothing and fashion changed during this time? What would be your 'dream' for the fashion industry? Let us know in the comments or on our Instagram.