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What does the coronavirus crisis mean for sustainable fashion?

May 21 2020 – Gergana Damyanova

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on sustainable fashion
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on sustainable fashion

The sun is shining in London and here, as in many other places, it seems like we are starting to see the end of the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions. It's a great moment! It's exciting to see friends again, to sit in the park, to enjoy the sunshine! However, as we are slowly going back to normal, it's important to remember that potentially a lot of things have changed. I say potentially as we are yet to see whether we are going to keep our 'new habits' or would rush straight back to living like it's 2019.

As a sustainable fashion brand we have done our fair share contemplating what would the current social and economic crisis mean for the ethical fashion movement. Would people buy more sustainable clothes? Would we lose sight of the climate crisis as we are battling another economic crisis? Would companies abandoned their sustainability efforts as they rush to restore profitability? Or maybe - would everything just stay the same? Join me as I go over the leading arguments and share my own view of what we can expect.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the sustainable fashion industry

The Optimist: "The coronavirus crisis will force fashion into a sustainable future", says Pamela N. Danziger in Forbes

We have all now have spend a few months at home. Our busy calendars were wiped off, the exotic trips cancelled and the weddings postponed. We have had free time. Whether we planned to give our lifestyle a thought or not, most likely social media forced all of us to think about the way we live - individually and as a society.

While being socially distant, we have never been stronger as a community. Everyone, everywhere around the world was going through the same experience. And so many of us stepped up to donate masks, walk dogs, deliver food, give friendly calls to lonely strangers and just do everything that was required for us to pull through this as a society.

It is fair to say that the pandemic has triggered changes in the way our communities function and these changes are here to stay. The realisation that the simple, small action of an individual can have a global impact has settled. We have faced the fact that we can no longer be careless about the way we live. While sustainability is not directly linked to COVID-19 - we saw what a world with much less carbon emissions and no overproduction looks like and that has resonated strongly with the average consumer. Thus, we can expect that the post-lockdown shopper is much more conscious about seeing sustainability efforts and improved sustainability practices.

In apparel, 2019 was named the "Year of Sustainability". A lot was said and big fashion brands appeared to lay down the building blocks of what could be a whole different industry - eventually. The real sustainability ambitions of the industry lied somewhere between the massive greenwashing campaigns of the fast fashion companies and the sustainable clothing of the new 'fashion revolution' brands. That was enough for 2019 with its patient consumers who were eager to celebrate even the mention of the word 'sustainable'. However, the 2020 consumer has taken a step back, reset her priorities and will be more demanding and more scrutinising than ever.

more sustainable fashion demanded by consumers after the coronavirus crisis

The great thing about the fashion industry is that it is a very competitive place and companies are in constant rush to deliver what consumers are asking for. However, now every brand is facing a disrupted supply chain, lost sales, the fact that they had to lay off or furlough employees and overall, a unstable retail reality. To put it in other words, brands will need to rebuild their value chain in the hope that they outpace competition and survive the next couple of years. The big question is - would they actually manage to keep sustainability high enough on the agenda? This is where the view of the pessimists comes in.

The Pessimist: Sustainability in the fashion industry will fall off the agenda for the next few years

Above we focused on the social changes triggered by the pandemic, it's time to look at the economic impact of the lockdown. We have slid in a recession bigger than the 2008 financial crisis. Almost all companies have faced unprecedented and unexpected hardship. Workers around the globe have lost their jobs due to factory closures. All this is going to have a long and echoing impact on consumer spending meaning that almost every brand can expect tough years ahead.

The way that different apparel companies will take charge of their environmental impact will be detrimental for separating the fake ones from the authentic ones. I do agree with the pessimist - some brands will quickly forget that sustainability was on top of their agenda and will focus on cutting cost and trying to improve their profits. For these brands, the coronavirus crisis will mean that their sustainability ambitions are postponed for years if not forever.

The real innovators in the industry, however, will root their bounce-back strategies in changing their customer proposition to match the values of the 2020 shopper. This view is echoed by "Weaving a Better Future: Rebuilding a More Sustainable Fashion Industry After COVID-19", a report  by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Apparel Coalition. Leaders' focus will fall on sustainable, durable and long-lasting clothing. And while companies are struggling to come back to their pre-pandemic state, consumers will face a challengers of their own. Facing more uncertainty in the job market and lower disposable income, shoppers will be more scrutinising about what they buy and from whom they buy it.

In conclusion, the change in consumer perception that we see will lead to a more sustainable fashion industry. We have seen that the industry is able to step up and raise and introduce new business models - like in the example of virtual fashion week events. The companies that are capable of bringing true sustainable innovation will not back off - quite the opposite - they will accelerate because consumers are calling for a better future.


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