After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the fashion month is back underway in New York, London, Milan and Paris, in a new ‘phygital’ format and with sustainability higher on the agenda than ever before. Has COVID-19, this Black Swan event with profound implications for our economies and societies, changed the fashion industry for good? Could the pandemic usher a new era of sustainable fashion Renaissance?
In many ways, the crisis has accelerated the changes that had been simmering for quite some time and led to paradigm shifts that will endure post-pandemic. Undoubtedly, the greatest social impact has been on the garment workers. According to news reports, more than a million garment workers were out of work in the early days of the pandemic. With women making up 80% of the world’s 300 million garment workers, the pandemic further exacerbated gender-related poverty and inequity. For the first time since the turn of the century, progress towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals has reversed, according to the latest Goalkeepers Report.
The crisis hit independent fashion designers hard, too. Industry pundits have not been mincing their words, calling the pandemic ‘an existential threat’ to the industry as a whole. Many will not survive the storm. But the pressure has driven others to make long-overdue changes that could ultimately make them stronger.
As the world grapples with COVID-19, we can draw parallels with another crucial and transformative period in human history – the Renaissance. It emerged from one of the darkest chapters—The Black Death in the 14th century—a plague pandemic that devastated the populations of Europe and Asia.
The latest pandemic also offers us a chance to rethink our societies and economies as we ‘build back better’ post-COVID. Here are five areas that could have a transformational effect on the industry’s sustainability going forward:
Slowing down fashion: In the midst of the pandemic, Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani penned an impassioned plea to WWD, exposing the “absurd” current state of affairs and “a criminal nonalignment between the weather and the commercial season” in a frenetic pursue of fast fashion. He argued that the slow down forced by the pandemic is bringing to light a necessary redemption of value to the work and world of designers, which would ultimately bring the customers to the understanding of the value of fashion and its collections. In response, several designers announced that they would be stepping away from the traditional fashion calendar, and reducing annual collections from six to two.
Greater regulation: This has been a critical missing link in the fashion industry’s transition to sustainability, something I explored back in 2016 in this article. Earlier this year, Stella McCartney used her influential voice to call on G7 leaders attending their summit in Cornwall to ramp up regulation of the fashion industry. “Fashion is one of the most harmful industries and least policed. Sadly, the idea of us self-regulating [is] not a fair thing to ask of an industry. We need to be helped. If we could just have some regulation, some policies, some [standardised] methods to measure our impact,” she told FT in a recent interview. Ending modern slavery in fashion should be the first and foremost issue to be tackled through greater regulation, but it could do so much more.
Climate action, yes, but don’t forget nature: The climate alarm bells have been ringing for some time, not least thanks to passionate campaigners. The fashion industry—which accounts for more carbon emissions than the air and maritime travel combined—has a key role addressing the climate crisis. But there is another planetary emergency that is much less talked about: the biodiversity crisis. Natural ecosystems that sustain our very life on this planet are under extreme pressure—and their health is critical for staving off the worst effects of climate change. More efforts must be made to come up with credible and simple ways of measuring the value of services these ecosystems provide—from flood protection to pollination—and as a source of materials for the fashion industry itself, and how to account for this natural capital.
A more diverse industry: Another hope for a post-crisis fashion industry will be its greater diversity—another issue that has been ignored for far too long. When luxury fashion lined up social media posts to show solidarity with last year’s Black Lives Matters protests, some brands were exposed for their hypocrisy and bias. A truly diverse fashion industry is a must—and it goes beyond issues of race or sex identity. Fashion as an industry needs to cater for all shapes and sizes, and pay more than just lip service to the principle of inclusivity. This may also mean eventually redrawing the global map of fashion capitals beyond the big four mentioned above.
Smart digital: While many lament the demise of brick-and-mortar retail, which accounted for 80% of transactions in the fashion industry pre-pandemic, there is no doubt that the crisis also accelerated the use of digital. Retailers who had not previously prioritized e-commerce rushed to seize the online opportunity. For some e-commerce platforms, the pandemic fuelled massive growth, for instance the resale market got a boost through digital innovation since the onset of COVID-19. According to McKinsey, in many countries, as of this year, 40% of all sales will be digital. However, it would be important to look at digital as more than just clicks leading to sales. Smart digital strategies can help reduce carbon emissions and waste, reconnect creators with consumers, and level the playing field for emerging designers.
This article is based on my lecture first given to Sustainability Management School Switzerland (SUMAS) students in June 2020 and updated in September 2021.