Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Garment Companies Take the Lead in the Fight Against COVID-19

Heroic efforts from apparel makers and fashion designers abound, responding to the urgent calls for PPE as hospitals brace for a surge in COVID-19 cases.
By Leon Kaye

One of the more inspirational yet heartbreaking stories we’ve witnessed in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is that the smallest of companies are punching above their weight as they do their part to look out for people who have been affected the most.

You’ve probably seen this trend unfold in your town or city. For example, there are countless local restaurants on the brink that are diverting a huge part of revenues from takeout orders to employee relief funds. We’re now seeing heroic efforts on behalf of garment manufacturers and fashion designers in New York City, which practically overnight became ground zero of the COVID-19 crisis here in the U.S.

Fashion designers commit to making PPE

We can argue endlessly over who came up with the idea first, but the ball really got rolling late last week when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent out an urgent plea for personal protective equipment (PPE) including gloves, N95 masks and gowns. Christian Siriano, a past winner of Project Runway who has since become a mentor on that show and a successful designer in his own right, asked other designers to help with this effort. Now, work is underway to provide medical professionals with desperately needed PPE, and the effort continues to surge across the U.S.

Since Friday, the wider fashion industry has responded in kind at breathtaking speed, while, as of press time, the White House has resisted taking more aggressive action that would involve ordering companies to manufacture PPE.

In the meantime, more apparel companies on both sides of the pond have said they will contribute resources to this uphill fight, including the house of luxury brands Kering, fast-fashion giant H&M, Zara’s parent company Inditex and North Carolina-based HanesBrands.

Anna Gedda, who is the head of sustainability at H&M, said in a public statement: “The coronavirus is dramatically affecting each and every one of us, and H&M Group is, like many other organizations, trying our best to help in this extraordinary situation.”

These apparel companies’ efforts come days after LVMH, the parent company behind brands like Christian Dior and Givenchy, said it would harness all of the production facilities for its perfume and cosmetics brands to produce hand sanitizer for medical professionals and hospitals in France.

A race against time as COVID-19 cases keep rising

During an interview Sunday on CNN, Gov. Cuomo summed up what he and other governors are up against as they strive to provide hospitals with the PPE they need:

“We now have a situation where every state on its own is trying to acquire these goods, and . . . we're actually competing against each other. So we find a mask manufacturer, I'm trying to contract with them, California's trying to contract with them, Texas is trying to contract with them. Masks that we paid 85 cents for, we're now paying $7. Okay?”

More resources are still needed as PPE supplies dwindle

Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, an organization pushing the global apparel industry to achieve science-based environmental and social targets, on Sunday urged more fashion brands to join the fight against COVID-19 despite these harrowing times — and to do their part to protect their employees as well:

“Brands, we know you are going through massively challenging times, we beg you to consider your workforce, especially the most vulnerable, the garment workers, we will remember and reward those that do. People are waking up, so establish good faith now."

For anyone who thinks the COVID-19 crisis is overhyped and dismisses calls to shelter in place and stay inside, remind them of what we are up against. Case in point: 3M is one manufacturer that says it has aggressively ramped up its production of PPE — in this company’s case, N95 masks. According to 3M’s CEO, Mike Roman, the company has doubled its production of N95 masks to 35 million a month in the U.S. Yet the fear among many healthcare workers is that this is still far short of the amount of PPE they need.

So, largely due to the slow action at the federal government level, we need more companies to step up.

Image credit: CDC/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye