For over a decade, consumers have been making demands about wanting sustainable products — both fashions and business practices. So, let’s address the elephant in the room.
The biggest issue facing fashion prior to COVID-19 was sustainability, and the pandemic has only made this issue more paramount. Some organizations, such as Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), recognized the importance of sustainability by creating additional positions (reporter for sustainability solutions, for example). In their recent letters to the fashion industry, designer Dries Van Noten and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) expressed concern for the environment.
Aditi May, sustainable fashion advocate and journalist, wrote, “Coronavirus is exposing the cracks in our system. Consumers are paying attention and reorienting our relationship with consumption.” The idea of fast fashion is losing favor due to its high waste factor.
Sustainability is often thought of as applying to the environment. However, it is a much broader concept. The three tenets of sustainability are social, environmental and economic.
The fashion industry has been criticized for many decades for operating under substandard working conditions. Ever since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, manufacturers have struggled with both that perception and reality. Most have taken measures to improve their workroom practices, largely due to legislation. However, the operation of foreign manufacturers continues to be problematic. Several brands, such as Nike, have created a code of conduct for workers, which details requirements regarding age, compensation, health, safety and forced labor. However, many companies have not.
Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake, has a wish for the fashion supply chain to have more protections for workers.
“I would hope to see sustainable brands that work in close partnership with worker-owned factories and unionized warehouses so that there are safety nets and protection for the people working across the fashion supply chain,” she said. Consumers, meanwhile, are becoming more attuned to these social justice issues.
Fashion is the second largest polluter in the world, according to Sustain Your Style in 2020. Consumers are leading the fight for this to change. They are demanding newer business models that focus on sustainable products. In addition to exhaust emission from cars and trucks, consumers are concerned about the wastewater from the dyeing process, microfibers floating in the ocean, pesticides which end up in the water system, fabric waste and excess inventories from overproduction, which end up in the landfills.
Sustain Your Style, a Berlin-based not-for-profit initiative focused on issues in the fashion industry, also has some suggestions for how fashion can improve its environmental impact. Manufacturers can select factories in countries with stricter environmental regulations. They can use organic and natural fibers, which require fewer chemicals in their production. Smarter choices in pesticides can reduce toxicity in the water system. Perhaps the biggest idea, however, is that consumers can buy less, buy better quality, mend clothes and recycle.
Another environmental issue is overproduction. According to the article “How the Current Crisis Could Impact the Future of Fashion Forever” in Worth, more than 70% of clothes end up in a landfill. Celine Semaan, founder of Slow Factory, said, “We need to design a production model that doesn’t overproduce and over-manufacture, because a system that yields over-consumption cannot last. I don’t think the public or the employees will allow a return to business as usual.”
Not only does overproduction affect the environment, but it also has a financial impact on manufacturers. Sustainability decisions often affect profitability by reducing the bottom line. Investors shy away from manufacturers that generate less profit.
The economic ramifications of sustainability will be big. Manufacturers will need to spend more due to the increased cost of sustainable raw materials. The design process may also be affected; smaller collections may negatively impact sales. However, consumers may buy higher-priced fashion if it is sustainable. Purchasing less does not necessarily mean lower retail sales and lower sales commissions. If the consumer is buying less of higher-priced fashion, the net result could be zero.
Although the economic outlook may be grim, the winners of the competitive advantage will be the companies that embrace sustainability. Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), emphatically stated that “to survive the pandemic and maintain strong business relationships, companies need to lead with values of sustainability and compassion for the health, safety and well-being of workers around the world, especially those most vulnerable. They will emerge stronger from this crisis than companies that do not prioritize sustainability. … Before the crisis, nine out of 10 Generation-Z consumers already believed companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues.” Companies that do not follow the sustainability movement will not last.
This article is excerpted from Linda Tucker’s upcoming book, “Fashion Wholesaling” (Bloomsbury, 2021).
Linda Tucker, EdD
Apparel Merchandising and Management
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona