Drop the shop: Can the crisis reform fashion?
Sophie Woolcock discusses the future of the fashion industry in light of the current crisis
As cities empty and economies grind to a halt, sectors that have previously thrived off globalisation and free trade of goods have experienced unprecedented disruption. With a business model that heavily relies on a globally dispersed supply chain, COVID-19 hit the fashion industry hard. While established high street names such as H&M and Zara are holding their head above the water, younger evolving brands face an even steeper uphill battle to success. Files for bankruptcy and laying off of part-time and seasonal staff due to a drop in sales will see a dramatic change to the way the fashion industry functions. But will this disruption be used as a springboard for more sustainable fashion?
In the past decade fashion sales have changed drastically, Linchpinseo reported that the average person is buying 60% more clothes than they did 15 years ago and where there were once four seasons there are now over sixteen, causing the industry to grow by almost 5% in 2019. Affordable international travel and a consumer drive for more flashy independent looks have meant that fashion is becoming seasonless, with sleeveless looks combined with bright popping colours not looking out of place on a cold dreary day in mid-winter. Seasonless fashion seemed to be limitless. Until COVID-19. The pandemic has halted the industry in a way that no environmental movement could, causing many retailers to go under and many more to sacrifice a fraction of their workforce.
Although some brands are managing to shift stock online, most of this year’s spring and summer collections are piling up in warehouses as 80% of transactions in the fashion industry still happen in physical stores. With events in the fashion calendar being cancelled left, right and center, uncertainty surrounds September fashion weeks in Milan, London, Paris and New York. The fashion industry is in disarray and many are questioning what it will look like on the other side of the pandemic.
The sustainability of fashion is not a new conversation. The fashion industry produces 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions a year and has been under pressure to change for some time now. Vogue editor Dame Anna Wintour told the BBC that she thinks “(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 that we have all indulged in and how we really need to rethink what this industry stands for.” She clearly hopes to encourage a shift in consumer values and an acceleration of the fashion industry’s shift towards more sustainable production.
However, sustainable for the environment is not necessarily sustainable for the incomes of the workers at the beginning of the supply chain. The outbreak of coronavirus has not just seen thousands fighting for survival in hospitals. 83% of Bangladeshi export earnings are linked to the garment industry making up more than $32 trillion every year. As exports dry up, the 4 million strong workforce of which the majority are women are left with no social safety net to fall back on and are struggling to feed their families.
If this pandemic has shown anything it’s the fragility with which the modern economy holds the lives of so many. It’s no surprise that it’s the non-essential luxury industries that have suffered most. COVID-19 could yet force the hand of market towards the reform of a system that has become giddy with excess. With some hope a post COVID-19 fashion industry will not be seasonless but timeless.