Fast fashion has received significant press coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, but not for the reasons that manufacturers and retailers within the fashion industry would prefer.
“Fast Fashion Is Being Left In The Slow Lane: Why The Days of Cheap Clothing Might Be Over Forever,” declared a recent Forbes headline.
“‘It’s Collapsing Violently’: Coronavirus Is Creating a Fast Fashion Nightmare,” warned another headline, this one in GQ.
Situations like the current crisis in Bangladesh, the world’s second largest ready-made fashion exporter, increasingly demonstrate the human, environmental and economic downsides of the current fast fashion market.
Garment factories across Bangladesh have reported more than $3 billion in cancelled and postponed orders due to decreased demand stemming from COVID-19. Ready made goods make up more than 80 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports, so these unpaid orders could have catastrophic implications for the Bangladeshi economy and population.
What will happen to the more than 2 million workers (and, subsequently, families) affected by the factory closures and unpaid paychecks as Bangladesh’s garment factories close in response to these cancellations? What will be done with the 980 million items of clothing produced but now left without a destination?
Fortunately, new initiatives are signaling progress in sustainable fashion.
As Andrew Busby wrote in the aforementioned Forbes article:
“Prior to the coronavirus pandemic … the direction of travel was beginning to shift away from mass fashion consumerism and brands were having to re-think their business models for 2030 and beyond. That kind of timeline now seems laughable. Most felt that this process would take years, but what the coronavirus has done is to shrink what might have happened in years to just weeks."
Here are three ways the fashion industry can take advantage of this new accelerated timeline to improve sustainability and prevent future supply chain catastrophes like those in Bangladesh.
Companies with strong relationships to suppliers are more likely to keep commitments to them when crises should arise. One way this can be done is through local manufacturing partnerships. Another way is through clear, open lines of communication. Jane Mosbacher Morris, founder and CEO of apparel brand To The Market, told Vogue Business that she has been talking with her suppliers to get a stronger understanding of their needs. She’s hosting an upcoming webinar to provide suppliers within the fashion industry with resources to stay viable in the current business climate.
“There are creative ways to support everyone in the value chain, and it takes effort to figure out what that looks like given your constraints,” Mosbocher Morris said in the article. “My ability as a CEO to support myself and my team is probably stronger than the garment workers’ ability to support herself and her family.”
The circular economy is having quite the fashionable moment. Retailers ranging from Patagonia to Puma have introduced circular initiatives this year, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has named circular fashion its “2020 Earth Day Focus”. So what does circular economy in fashion mean? It means that organizations must create apparel and production systems “that maximize the value of healthy materials through multiple cycles of use before reprocessing them into new raw materials of equal or greater quality at their very end of life.”
Some analysts say now is an excellent time to work toward circularity in the fashion industry. The production of garments worldwide has paused while many employees are working from home; how consumers view their apparel needs in the long run could change dramatically.
Brands can begin by brainstorming ways to reinvent the overstock clothing currently waiting in warehouses and stockrooms throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, McKinsey & Company’s State of Fashion 2020 Coronavirus Update suggested organizations breathe new life into current stock through efforts like apparel personalization, improved customer experience, and reorganization of the fashion calendar to accommodate current stock into later seasons.
The McKinsey & Company report also encouraged fashion companies big and small to work together: “This will also be a time for collaboration within the industry—even among competing organizations. No company will get through the pandemic alone, and fashion players need to share data, strategies, and insights on how to navigate the storm.”
One way companies can collaborate is through shared manufacturing sites and resources. The tech startup Unmade’s software allows brands like New Balance to “rent” blocks of manufacturing time on a specific machine at a factory according to product demand, rather than reserving a factory run for the entire order at once, often resulting in product surplus. On-demand manufacturing also allows flexibility. Orders scheduled to run in Indonesia, for example, were moved to U.S. facilities when the novel coronavirus first closed factories in Asia.
Virtual industry events are another way for key players in fashion to collaborate while maintaining social distancing. This week’s Fashinnovation 2020 featured more than 80 speakers focusing on how the industry can better respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic while also implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Through these efforts and more, the fashion industry can emerge more sustainable than ever following the COVID-19 crisis. As Guardian writer Tamsin Blanchard wrote in a March article: “The cycle of fashion for fashion’s sake has been broken. We must use this time to rethink how this industry can be redesigned with respect for the planet and the health of the people who work in it.”
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