Has the planet-poisoning fashion industry changed due to Covid?
It is not breaking news to anybody that shopping at low-priced, poor quality, global stores is ethically dubious. But not everyone knows that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. It (including the top-price brands) is responsible for a full 10% of global CO2 emissions, on top of producing 92 million tons of textile waste each year.
Yet in 2020, the ‘full steam ahead’ diesel train that is the global fashion industry came to a jarring halt for the first time in decades. This was something that the British fashion industry had not seen since 1939 when war broke out. The pandemic has cast clouds of anxiety, fear and uncertainty over the industry, yet within the turmoil there is a glimmer of hope for our relationship with the planet. Consumers have begun to question the longevity of fashion as we know and love it, which may be the long-overdue catalyst thanks to which we can renew our planet.
Fashion is a seasonal set up generating quarterly trend turnovers and style revamps. This means that huge volumes of new textiles and items of clothing are created each season to replace so-called outdated pieces from the previous season. Consequently, almost 350 tonnes of clothing, equating to roughly £140 million worth of used (but wearable) clothing, is sent to landfill every year in the UK, according to Clothes Aid.
Moreover, clothing production is organised prior to consumer demand. Predicting the future volume of purchases unsurprisingly results in misjudged demand estimates and production. Each season, over-_prediction_ breeds an average over-_production_ of around 30-40% for each individual brand, leaving them with a huge amount of unsold stock as they transition from season to season. While many brands carry out end of season sales to rid themselves of this excess, some companies fear that reduced prices and the chance of re-sale will tarnish their image, leading many to destroy excess merchandise. In 2017, Burberry burned £28.6 million in bags, clothes and perfume, in one of fashion’s most scandalous acts of destruction.
With lockdowns enforced across the globe and the fashion industry grinding to a halt, there has been a dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, with some countries’ levels having fallen by over a quarter on average during the lockdown periods. In China, the world’s largest producer and exporter of textiles, the nitrogen dioxide emission levels (an air pollutant linked closely to factory output) dropped by roughly 40% during their first lockdown, according to the European Space Agency manager Claud Zehner. Claud Zehner of the European Space Agency explains that the environmental effects were so drastic that they were even visible in satellite images from space. Parts of Northern Italy, Italy’s fashion capital, saw a similar decrease in NO2 emissions as all non-essential business, including fashion manufacturing, shuddered to a sudden halt. All in all, global lockdowns which forced production to stop, as well as a limiting and thereby transforming individual behaviour (locking us down and preventing air travel), led to the biggest drop in annual emissions since the Second World War.
The Coronavirus pandemic has not only exposed the environmental impact of the traditional fashion industry, but also the social injustice of the industry as a whole. As lockdowns around the world commenced and retail stores closed, news broke that many fashion brands, including Fashion Nova, Primark and URBN cancelled or paused three billion dollars worth of orders. Already been manufactured and shipped but no longer sellable, corporations simply stopped payments for its garment workers (who had already done the work). As has been well documented, these workers largely live in the developing world, earn a pittance, and are reliant on their incomes to support their families.
Coronavirus measures have clearly hit the fashion industry hard, but it will inevitably rebuild itself post-pandemic. The question is: into what new shape?
Either fashion businesses can carry on how they were operating before, with sustainability on the backburner, brought in only as an afterthought or trendy marketing opportunity. This is already visible in the ‘eco’ collections that many fast fashion brands have begun to release, which make some money and generate some interest, but are essentially tokenistic. Or, businesses can rebuild themselves with sustainability incorporated in the design. They could finally promote the wellbeing of workers across their supply chain and the environmental effects of their brands seriously, rather than viewing it as a way of fulfilling a greenwashing ‘tick box’ checklist.
In April 2020, McKinsey & Company carried out a survey across more than 2,000 UK and German consumers to capture consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey revealed that during the pandemic, an increased awareness of external events, combined with a change in perspective, sparked a newfound engagement with sustainability amongst European consumers. The survey found that during the pandemic, 57% of the respondents made significant changes to their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact, and more than 60% report that they changed their behaviour by now going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging. Meanwhile, 61% of millennials stated that they made an increased number of purchases from smaller or lesser-known brands during the pandemic, suggesting a shift in consumer behaviour towards making more environmentally and socially conscious decisions.
In regards to the fashion industry itself, the survey states that more than 60% of consumers report spending less on fashion during the crisis, with approximately 50% expecting this trend to continue after the crisis passes. Of the consumers surveyed in the McKinsey report, 65% were supportive of fashion brands delaying the launch of new collections as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and 58% of respondents are less concerned about the ‘fashion’ of clothing than other factors following the crisis. In fact, consumers now cite newness as one of the least important attributes when making purchases. Overall, the survey reveals the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted consumer behaviour, which will directly affect the re-emergence of the fashion industry in a post-COVID world.
The fashion industry has proven itself untrustworthy in the past; it is most likely that fashion brands will try to return to ‘business as usual’, as this is how they are accustomed to functioning. However, as consumers, we can demand change. After all, fashion businesses are malleable to the needs of the consumer and as long as there is demand for more sustainable and ethical practices, brands will be forced to supply them.
Crucially, consumers can no longer doubt the effectiveness of their actions. The world has received brutal evidence of this over the past year. Just as the virus highlighted the fragility of human life, the R-number’s fluctuation stressed the colossal impact of minute personal choices - just think of patient zero, or that meme with “somebody eating a bat”, a pack of increasingly large dominos in motion with the largest one saying “the stock market collapsing”. We learned that we could literally save a life by changing our daily schedule. Of course, this was always true in a tenuous way, but never has this generation seen it at such proximity. Having obeyed orders to stay at home, we can no longer pretend that altering our everyday habits ‘doesn’t make a difference’.
Whatsmore, engagement in sustainability has surged during the COVID-19 crisis, with European consumers wanting fashion players to act responsibly and consider the social and environmental impacts of their businesses. As consumers, we must act with our money and take advantage of this crossroad to rebuild the industry with social and environmental consideration at its core. We must force brands to reassess their own key values, strengthen sustainability commitments and implement industry-wide changes, such as resisting the never-ending seasonal cycle of trend in the fashion system. Both individuals and brands need to celebrate fashion for the craftsmanship, skill and creativity that forged its artistic reputation in the first place.
In an episode of Naiomi Cambell’s ‘No Filter With Naiomi’, Anna Wintour explains that she feels:
“very strongly that when we come out at the other end - which we will do - that people’s values are really going to have shifted”. She states that the pandemic is “an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and to look at our lives, and to rethink our values, and to really think about the waste, and the amount of money, and consumption, and excess - and I obviously include myself in this - that we have all indulged in and how we really need to rethink what this industry stands for.
The fashion industry has fallen, but already begun to rebuild. However, it has reached a crossroad in its path to recovery, and we as consumers have a say in deciding which path it takes.
Katie is a professional working in the fashion industry, aiming to change it for the better. What do you think is the best way to go about this? Where does responsibility lie? Have you changed your shopping habits during the pandemic? Email us: email@example.com