Will COVID-19 disrupt fashion sustainability?
The fashion industry has notably accepted and ignored the human cost and exploitation of workers in the past few decades. With the rise in awareness in sustainable fashion, the industry has pivoted and is moving towards more ethical productions and environmentally focused practices. Millennials and Gen Z market audiences have set the ethical tone that they expect fashion brands to adhere to. Fashion giant H&M promised to use eco-friendly fabrics and more sustainable production methods, Levi’s also committed to sustainability through working towards sustainability sourced and recycling old jeans. With sales plummeting and a bleeding supply chain, fashion brands and producers may be forced into keeping the lights on rather than focusing on their sustainability commitments. Workers are losing their jobs being and being forced to furlough, the market is shaken. Consumers are losing confidence. Will all sustainability practices be put on hold to protect profits and keep the doors open?
Many garment producers in Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh closing due to coronavirus and a shortage of materials from china along with the mass cancellations. The concept of sustainability may be no longer be an option or priority for these factories. The Arcadia Group, who owns brands including Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins have reportedly cancelled clothing orders estimated to be worth over €100m. The Arcadia Group aren’t known for their sustainability or ethical trading, but, this report highlights the dire effects coronavirus it’s having on key industry players. The mass order and production cancellations from large and independent brands could result in these factories being pushed into producing less sustainable products and not paying or treating their workers fairly during this pandemic.
Sustainability tends to yield a high price due to the ethical production practices and when times are good, the majority of people are happy to pay this price. But, if wealth disappears, if there are significant job losses, will concerns about sustainability be subsided? Sustainability is something we care about when we have the luxury to care about it. But, when financial security is taken away, will buying sustainability be a luxury that most won’t be able to afford.
Coronavirus has brought most of the fashion industry to a sudden halt, some experts believe that brands and retailers may revaluate and could re-emerge after the pandemic with blank slates. This may encourage more brands to double down on their sustainability efforts. There could be a fundamental shift in how brands sell to their customers. This sudden standstill and self-reflection may result in consumers realising they don’t need to buy as much. They may no longer look for sustainability as a bonus but may demand it as the standard. Brands may look at including sustainability as a driving force of their strategy. If consumers are buying less and demanding sustainable and ethically produced garments then this may be the driving motivation for brands to adopt this in their business model.
The supply chain disruption will hopefully prompt brands to put more emphasis on sourcing and working with ethical and sustainability-focused suppliers. This crisis is brands and retailers opportunity to rethink how and where they have their pieces produced. Bringing in more sustainable manufactures and working with suppliers to help them be more sustainable will cut into margins. Adopting a sustainably focused mission will reduce environmental impacts and help change the lives of the vulnerable working who work in garment production.