We are living in unprecedented times. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our world, killing thousands and upending lives globally. These uncertain times are undoubtedly scary; however, they also reveal perspective around our failing systems and perhaps provide a glimpse into what our world might look like if we enacted real change. The pandemic is shining a spotlight on the world of fashion, and this multi-billion dollar industry has plenty to learn from the lessons this moment is doling out. Systemic change is needed, and perhaps in coronavirus’s wake, we might at last confront the fashion industry’s failures and work towards building a better future.
Cut Backs in Environmental Devastation
Countries are reeling from the rapidly spreading virus; however, the planet is unexpectedly benefiting from the worldwide pause. For the first time in decades, the absence of motorized boats among the Venice canals has given residents a chance to view the unique biosphere. Air pollution has decreased around the globe, most notably in China, where travel restrictions have resulted in carbon dioxide emissions dropping from 10-30% lower than they normally are.
“If we can think about how to prepare for climate change like a pandemic, maybe there will be a positive outcome to all of this,” said Christopher Jones, lead developer of the CoolClimate Network, an applied research consortium at the University of California, Berkeley.
Each year, 200 million pounds of clothing end up in New York City’s landfill sites — the equivalent of filling the Statue of Liberty with garments 440 times. Clothes with non-biodegradable fabrics, which is most of the clothing you own, will sit in landfills for up to 200 years. Longer if they’re plastic.
This unusual time of global stillness has experts predicting that not only will consumers gain valuable perspective about what is actually essential to our lives, but they will bring those revelations to a post COVID-19 world. “While none of us can predict what ‘post covid recovery’ will look like, I do think many of the learning outcomes will be similar across the board: transparency is a fundamental pillar of safety and agility, and therefore crucial to implement at all tiers of the supply chain; diversification of resources is a strong survival tool; and lastly, authenticity in messaging is a necessary ingredient in customer retention,” sustainable fashion influencer and Product Specialist at Centric Brands, Naomi Goez, shared with Remake. “I foresee companies making the clear connection between ‘eco-responsibility’ and financial recovery from this crisis…I believe the movement will be hard to ignore.”
This means that an understanding of the environmental impacts caused by the fashion industry has the ability to spread just as rapidly as the virus and lead to higher sustainability demands once the economy picks up again.
Tamsin Blanchard penned a piece for The Guardian last month, stating that “the only way to ensure we cut carbon emissions and end the cycles of overproduction and waste is to imagine a whole new system that places the Earth’s needs before those of industrial growth.” We must look at the industry holistically and change our relationship to it in order to save the planet and keep the fashion industry afloat.
Demand for Ethical Supply Chains
Retailers have long been looking for cost cuts by overbuying, which has led to a fast fashion culture of sales, two-for-ones, and garments priced so low it’s impossible not to wonder how brands get away with it. The result? An excess of clothing that often ends up in landfills and a supply chain where garment workers are paid far below a livable wage.This problem is now exacerbated by the inevitable economic recession. The Harvard Business Review states that “a small minority of companies that invested in mapping their supply networks before the pandemic emerged are better prepared.” Brands largely untouched by this crisis? Ones which have opted for regional supply chains like those promoted by Fibershed.
However, whether regionally or globally, tracing a supply chain not only supports the company during crisis, but it limits the disconnect between a business’s values and what actually occurs within their operations. “This situation is underscoring how unsustainable many of [the industry’s] practices really are. Many in precarious work have lost their income and in some areas, people have never been more exposed to exploitation,” Elizabeth Paton wrote in a The New York Times piece last month. In Bangladesh alone, millions of garment makers have been left vulnerable to food and housing insecurity as brands cancelled orders and stopped paying workers that already subsided on hand to mouth incomes.
This crisis has shown the public what ethical fashion activists have been screaming over and over: someone, somewhere is paying.
Those who were once invisible within the fashion supply chain – the women who make our clothing – are now being seen worldwide, and the devastation being imposed on them by irresponsible brands putting profit over human life is evident. The US economy, and economies around the world, have been built on the backs of those who receive the least pay, withheld rights, and lack of recognition. Now, when these makers need brand accountability more than ever, handfuls of brands are hiding behind “force majeure” contract clauses to abandon owed payments and relinquishing responsibility.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In a recent newsletter from Factory45, cofounder Shannon Whitehead declared, “If there’s any sort of silver lining, it’s that the 3 trillion dollar fashion industry is being forced to hit the reset button…This is sustainable fashion’s moment to shine.” What the fashion industry will look like in the future depends largely on what we choose to takeaway from this experience. If the coronavirus has taught the fashion industry anything, it’s that there is still hope for sustainable change, and that this call for less waste and ethical practices is a necessity, not a suggestion.
Images: DFID – UK Department for International Development, Grisha Levit, Matt/Unsplash