As the world fights the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, a dangerous throw-away culture of single-use plastic gear (facemasks, gloves) has been adopted. But, in the glamorous world of couture, throw-away culture has been in existence for years in the form of Fast Fashion. Infamously known as waste couture, Fast Fashion has been tainting the clothing industry, and its production during and after the pandemic, is set to exacerbate current burning ecological and social issues.
Fast Fashion, Fast Dumping
Fast fashion answered to the increasing demands of fashion conscious consumers, impacted by viral trends on social media. Previously, consumers were quality and brand focused. Today, the shift to instant gratification has led to their willingness to purchase cheaper replicas of their favorite brands, at a much lower quality.
Thus, bore the concept of Fast Fashion. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggested that global clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, with garments on average, being worn far less, and discarded much quicker than ever before. For example, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 compared to 2000, but only kept the clothes for half as long.
UK based charity WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimated that £140 million worth of clothing is disposed at landfill sites each year. Equivalent to filling 459 Olympic-sized swimming pools. UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) and WRI (World Resources Institute) reported that up to 80% of textile waste go into landfills each year- enough to fill the Sydney Harbor annually.
Source: BBC Earth
The desire for fast fashion has been deteriorating the quality of life on Earth, long before COVID-19 did.
Washing of clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Nearly 60% of those fibers are polyester (WRI). The production of polyester (a common textile used in fast fashion) requires large amounts of petroleum, emits twice as much carbon emissions than cotton, and does not decay in the ocean.
In fact, 35% of all microplastics (tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic) in the ocean stems from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester. According to the ICUN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), microplastics are estimated to compose up to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean.
What happens to out of season stock and damaged stock? It’s an open secret that some famous brands either dispose or incinerate unsold stock, to protect its brand integrity and the exclusivity of their products. Top-tier brand Burberry reported €28.6 million worth of products were incinerated in 2017. Overall, around 85% of unsold stock are sent for disposal, with just 1% earmarked for recycling initiatives.
Source: Oxfam GB
Consumer response to fashion during lockdown
Consumer spending has dropped to a record low (worse than the 2008 recession), as people are now reevaluating expenditure in light of eliminated incomes, with fashion featuring as a low priority.
Consequently, this has led to a dismantling of progressive sustainable practices within the fashion industry, like the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, for instance. A frightening scenario, as the link between fast fashion and dumping is often the elephant in the room, when discussing best practice environmental procedures in retail and fashion.
The pandemic has inadvertently exposed the vulnerable state of the global ecology and sociology, unmasking the realities of pollution, failing healthcare systems, and social inequalities. These extremities won’t be taken lightly by consumers. Ironically, the pandemic has motivated people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, derived from being forced to limit travel, work, and social activities, focusing more on mental and physiological self-care.
Having seen how defenseless the world is, industry predicts that consumers will now gravitate towards slower fashion, favoring long-wearing, evergreen lines over high turnover fast fashion items. Lockdown has changed consumerism towards considered purchases and consumers will hold fashion houses and other business accountable for their actions within the environmental and societal realms of sustainability.
Will the fashion industry manage its sustainability commitments during and after the pandemic?
Unprecedented global lockdown regulations have forced retailers and fashion houses to cut costs and shift resources towards economic survival. Progress made in sourcing sustainable materials, reducing carbon emissions, and promotion of workers’ rights, have been relegated to the wayside. UNEP uncovered that in Bangladesh, over a 1000 clothing factories have shutdown, resulting in a staggering loss of over $3.05 billion worth of orders cancelled. The societal cost in loss of earnings has been devastating.
Several months of lockdown saw clothing lines move out of trend and season and a rapid tumble in sales. The resultant stockpiles of unsold stock exposed the instability of the fast fashion market.
Moreover, retailers will have to cautiously decide how to manage these stockpiles, considering hawk-eyed consumers demanding for environmentally responsible practices, and bearing in mind the backlash Burberry faced when incinerating its unsold stock.
With sustainability trending across the globe in response to the severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers will be self-inflicting considerable damage to its reputation by abandoning sustainability plans.
A study by McKinsey surveyed 60 000 consumers across the UK and Europe, with results showing that a further 16% of people would actively attempt to purchase products with a clear sustainable footprint, 20% will tighten spending budgets for the remainder of the year, and 45% would favor businesses focused on environmental and social responsibility over brand and price when retailers reopen.
Moving forward, Sustainability will become a way of life
The practicalities of living in a digital age infers that fashion will always play a key factor in consumerism and the modern lifestyle. But, with the precarious imbalance exposed in the management of people, planet, and profit, the fashion industry requires a radical shift in thinking that works backwards, from available resources to meeting consumer demands.
Mapping the fashion value chain is paramount. Business as usual can no longer be the norm. There is now an opportunity for industry to pave greener and transparent relationships with manufacturers, suppliers, workers, retailers, distributors, and consumers.
A collaborative study by the Boston Consulting Group, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and Higg Co, created the following guidelines for the rebuild of an environmentally and socially conscious fashion industry:
- Protection of critical assets: safeguarding its human capital: workers, value chain partnerships, and support of its customers.
- Correct immediate inventory challenges: as opposed to dumping, retailers are urged to recycle or donate unsold stock, in an effort to reduce landfill disposals and gain the favour of awakened consumers.
- Transparent value chain relationships: cancelling orders without proactive collaboration will be deemed unacceptable, as the impact is rippled across the entire value chain of clothing production, with the lower tiers facing irrecoverable damages. Using technology and digitalisation will become a useful tool in managing stock and creating sustainable partnerships.
- Setting sustainability targets that are openly communicated to all stakeholders. Waste reduction and the limitation of carbon emissions form a major part of retailer sustainability goals. Innovations to prevent landfill disposals and cleaner production methods are critical as the fashion industry is responsible for 8.1% of greenhouse gas emissions produced annually.
- Incorporating Eco-fashion into existing and new clothing lines: Patagonia, retailing in casual wear, sells fleece clothing manufactured from postconsumer plastic cool drink bottles.
Several big brands are already forerunners of green fashion. Levi’s had started a repair programme before COVID-19 struck, allowing consumers to bring in damaged denim wear for repair and/or repurposing. Fashion giant H&M initiated a collection drive, encouraging customers to drop off old clothes at their stores for recycling. Woolworths SA donated substantial volumes of written off stock to a clothing bank, for donation to homeless citizens of South Africa.
Other leading fashion houses: Guess, Lee, Wrangler, Nordstrom, Vestiaire Collective and Fast Retailing have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular, committing to manufacturing jeans that last longer, can be easily recycled and are produced in an environmentally complaint manner, benefitting both producers and the environment.
The full impact of the novel COVID-19 pandemic is yet to reveal itself. In the interim, businesses prioritising their sustainability programmes and commitments will indeed face a degree of added expense, but they position themselves in a higher competitive advantage in comparison to those who chose ignorance on (current) environmental issues. We have a once in a generation opportunity to change the way we live and conduct business. The evident changes in the economic structures of consumer spending and consumer mind-sets, post COVID-19, will irrevocably change the way fashion is produced.
A greener and environmentally conscious fashion industry is on the horizon.
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