What is the Role of Sustainability as Fashion Retail Recovers from COVID-19?


Even before the word “pandemic” found its place in our vocabulary, brick-and-mortar stores around the world were already suffering from what industry insiders call the retail crisis.

That retail doesn’t do well during recessions is something that we learnt during the 2007 crisis, and now we find new hurdles including the explosive growth of e-commerce and the COVID-19 crisis.

After Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy in September 2019, the conversation about the future of retail became common amongst investors, who started losing faith in the future of physical retail and department stores in Western countries.

Despite having this recent precedent, global fashion multinationals were not ready for the shock that would disrupt their business plans starting March 2020 – the time when fashion consumers moved massively towards the online market space and stopped prioritizing the consumption of fashion as a consequence of the situation of uncertainty. Inditex can serve as a prime example, as it announced the closing (“absorption” in their terminology) of more than 1,200 stores all over the world, which accounts for 16% of their locations.

Inditex’s sales have also gone down by 44% in the first quarter of 2020. This shift is seen more as a business rearrangement towards an e-commerce-based business model rather than a defeat, but this is not the case for many others in the industry. The case of department stores in the US is especially meaningful, with prestigious chains such as JCPenney and Century21 filing for bankruptcy and even being forced to close down.

What does this situation mean for the future of the fashion industry? And what does it mean in terms of sustainability? How will this affect the plans of fashion brands to pivot towards more sustainable models, now that they have to focus on their own survival?

The ugly truth is that hoping that Coronavirus will be the end of fast fashion is wishful thinking, mostly because global fashion corporations have the resources, the tools and the influence to continue making profit in spite of adversity. We also know that fast fashion thrives online, as we have seen with companies such as Boohoo. Then our traditional brick-and-mortar fast fashion companies will probably prioritize the success of this relocation to the online space rather than focusing on sustainability.

Now, the good news is that everything is in the consumer’s hands. Probably you’ve heard this a million times, but consumers like you and I have the upper hand – as fashion businesses will only sell those products we’re willing to consume and that live up to our standards.

Sure, multi-million businesses are the ones to blame for more than 70% of global carbon emissions and most global waste, and it’s not fair to put this big of a responsibility on the consumer’s shoulders. But we also need to realise that they depend on us, and if we start making more educated and conscious choices, they will have to follow our lead. Maybe it’s not about making bad businesses disappear, but about forcing them to change.

Perhaps this crisis of retail will not teach companies directly to be more responsible, but it might motivate us to become better consumers. The Coronavirus crisis has also made more visible than ever the crisis of ethics in the fashion industry, and the message of sustainable fashion has reached a public that otherwise would have never heard of this topic. For instance, the #payup campaign launched by Remake which asks some of the fashion industry giants for accountability and to pay the debts they own to factories due to canceled orders.

What I want you to remember is that you should feel empowered in your role of consumer. You have the potential to change the fashion industry for the better, but first we need to accept this huge responsibility and to learn how to make our choices count.

Nothing will change if our mindset remains the same. So let’s take the leap.

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