With a handful of exceptions (like fortunate athleisure brands), the global fashion industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. Employing an estimated 300 million workers across the value chain, the stakes for recovery are high. A successful recovery may require substantial changes in operations but what kind of changes are possible when many players are fighting for simply to survive?
At the same time, the business world is demanding a green recovery – and these demands are even co-signed by fast-fashion brands like H&M – so what does this mean for the fashion industry?
Firstly, some are speculating about a shift in consciousness and priorities among consumers. One example is Cora Hills, founder and CEO of Reve en Vert – a platform selling sustainable, luxury fashion. Hills expressed during the lockdown “We are doing better this month than we did during Christmas…People are shopping more online and have more time to make conscious decisions.” In recent years the millennial market in particular has spearheaded the trend of buying less clothes whilst expressing more concern over brand ethics. Only time will tell if the pandemic has genuinely accelerated this shift.
During the pandemic, overall consumer demand plummeted and brick and mortar outlets were forced to close their doors. This resulted in dangerous levels of overstock and perhaps an even more dangerous remedy. Analysts voice concern over the current “sale of the century” – a short term solution for retailers which is viewed as deeply unhealthy for the industry as a whole. Brands are obliged to price match with discounting competitors and a vicious cycle can ensue. So, what is the green solution?
With low consumer demand forecasted to continue, brands need innovative new strategies to address overstock and waste. In this, technology may hold the key. Like other sustainable trends, digitalisation is not new but may now be accelerated by necessity. From 3D design software to shifting events online, there are possibilities right across the supply chain which promise a more efficient use of materials and resources. Made-to-order automated production cycles, for example, cut down on overstock as only sold items are produced. Advocates of the system point out it also allows for new levels of item personalisation. Following the success of Shanghai’s virtual Fashion Week, OTB group has launched an entirely digital showroom for its 2021 collections – cutting carbon emissions through eliminating mass travel and through reducing the number of samples produced.
“In light of COVID-19 we will change our priorities. We will accelerate the digital strategy, reduce samples, implement a virtual showroom and break with the traditional fashion calendar…3D prototyping and sampling will be a priority and we are reducing the size of our collections.” -Nicolaj Reffstrup, co-owner of womenswear brand, GAANI
Digital solutions sit alongside the long-called for transition towards “slow fashion” – producing fewer but better-quality garments of a higher value. Slow fashion brands often have short supply chains which has been an incredible advantage in recent times. Dr Hakan Karosman from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe claimed massive “restructuring” of the industry’s “fragmented supply chain” is required to build resilience. . This need was echoed by a McKinsey report which stated that shrinking supply chains is essential to ensuring different product components are not stranded for months in different corners of the globe, in the case of future outbreaks and travel restrictions. As well as future proofing, this should improve environmental control over factories and reduce emissions from transport.
As one of the world’s most polluting industries, fashion has a crucial role to play in a green recovery. The pandemic has shown that change is essential and that sustainable business models can boost a brand’s resilience in hard times. So, when voices question if the fashion industry can afford to make sustainable choices, perhaps the question which should be asked is if they can afford not to.