15/05/20 Is Fashion’s Response to the Global Pandemic Its Lowest Moment?

For many in retail, this is a painful moment in history, but for others it’s existential. The idea that we’re protecting designers and stores and bailouts on this side of the world, but neglecting to provide support to garment factories and its workers on the other side of the world is unbalanced.

While the COVID-19 crisis is impacting almost everyone in society, the burden is clearly being felt most acutely on those most vulnerable; millions of garment workers face destitution with no social security safety net as Britain high street/fast fashion billionaires fail to honour contracts and abandon them.

Is this the time to signal an end to business as usual? Is fashion’s response to the global pandemic its lowest moment?

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Image courtesy: Bangladeshi garment workers

 

As the world’s most globalised industry, more needs to be done to safeguard all aspects of the supply chain.

That too applies to creating a more sustainable fashion industry. With all this pain inflicted on so many, we can’t allow this to all be in vain and allow a return to the status quo.

There’s no denying that COVID-19 is a consumer crash course in supply chain reality, revealing the severe damage of uncertainty suffered disproportionately upstream in Bangladesh and around the world. To a new generation of consumerstransparency is now inseparable from brand identity.

Further, the Covid-19 global pandemic has ushered in a reckoning for the £2.2tn fashion and luxury industries, with much of it around sustainability or rather fashion’s lack thereof.

Fortunately, it’s an industry of amazing potential to be the new school for globalisation that is humane, united and serving a sustainable and equitable future, but just how do we arrive there? Can a greener, fairer fashion industry emerge from the crisis? What we can hope for from the fashion industry is a recovery that puts people and planet ahead of profits.

The industry has been making far too much for far too long. Clothing production has become so cost-effective at scale that brands would rather over-manufacture by 30 to 40 per cent than risk running out of stock. Much of that excess ends up incinerated or in landfills — Burberry famously burnt £28.6m in bags, clothes and perfume in 2017 to prevent them from being stolen or sold for too little (a practice it has since halted).

 

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Image courtesy: Li Edelkoort | Dezeen

The shutting down of society as we know it presents us with a lot of time on our hands and an opportunity for reflection.  In an interview in the design magazine Dezeen, the influential trend forecaster Li Edelkoort has called it a “quarantine on consumption” that is having a devastating impact on our economy and culture but ultimately offers “a blank page to a new beginning” that will eventually allow humanity to reset its values.

As many are now realising, people are having to get used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, she said, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks.

“It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” she said.

“And this is where I am hopeful for: another and better system to be put in place with more respect for human labour and conditions.”

While sections of the fashion industry already knew they could not continue on their current trajectory, it was inconceivable that brands could be forced to slow down, let alone stop production altogether.

It’s an unprecedented interruption of an industry that has relied on speeding from one season’s sales to the next. And it’s bringing with it a new sense of connectedness, responsibility and empathy.

To survive, sustainability must be economic.

Academics Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham’s new report, Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan, centres on the idea 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. Prior to COVID-19 this might still have been considered necessary but not urgent, however, with every passing day in lockdown it beggars belief how anyone could challenge this crucial requirement and it’s actually beginning to look somewhat more achievable. “We propose planet before industry as a radical idea in which the health and survival of our planet Earth is given precedence over business interests,” they share.

“Once we realise that the current system is always going to be self-limiting as there are finite resources, putting Earth first is the only option,” states Fletcher, of the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Far from tinkering around the edges of the existing way of working, creating “sustainable” collections or clothing recycling schemes, Earth Logic attacks the very root of the problem: the existing economic model itself. This involves a shift from production to the maintenance, use and care of existing clothes. It means reducing the volume of clothes we produce, and in turn, the number of resources we are using. It means moving from globalised, tangled and unsafe supply chains to small production centres based around the needs and desires of local communities. “We need to find a role for industry scattered across communities,” says Fletcher, with multiple local hubs for people to be educated, to make and repair their clothes.

The important point to note, as Fletcher says: “It’s about trying not to look away when the going gets hard.” We are seeing that in times of real emergency, people’s behaviour has to change. Even pressing pause on fashion’s relentless cycle for a season (possibly two) will have a profound effect. Already, so much has changed. 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.

“It’s like turning a kaleidoscope and seeing new patterns emerge,” says Tham. “There are so many possible patterns. Things can change very quickly when we have a new perspective. It is not impossible.”