By Rachel Cox
There is very little break from the complete coverage of coronavirus across the news currently. A lot of fear for public health is still hanging (and quite rightly so) but a lot of perspective is starting to come to light. People are looking more at their values and what matters to them. With people staying home to help keep the population safe, this is of course having an impact on the local and global fashion industry.
Of course, the news closer to home for many of us in the UK will be the concern around fashion retail workers and job uncertainty (regardless of the 80% government initiative). However, as usual, the most vulnerable in the fashion supply chain are losing out. The pandemic has allegedly driven large fast fashion retailers to pull out of orders, leaving large quantities of material already produced and partly manufactured by suppliers as well as leaving the orders unpaid. This of course means that many workers are also not likely being paid. Its times like these that we begin to realise just how unsustainable the fast fashion (and other fashion sectors) really are.
When we consider the term ‘ethical fashion’, we define fashion that is socially and environmentally friendly. More specifically, this is fashion with absolute minimal negative impact to the natural environment as well as the welfare of humans and living beings (preferably no negative impact would be the ideal) from designing to wearing clothes. ‘Sustainable fashion’ also considers the ability of a business to retain its economic strength, overall creating a business that encompasses all three elements. We are currently seeing an influx in attitude and behavioural shifts towards the definition of sustainable fashion however, enforcing the idea that a business is only sustainable if the fashion product is considered as ethical, regardless of how economically sustainable a business remains. Traditionally, we as a society in 2020 are very much used to a market economy engulfing us in advertising to sell us products with the social and environmental aspects being of secondary importance. Other concepts such as the circular and ecological economics primarily chose environmental and social practise with finance-oriented economics being secondary.
The industry itself
The example above of retailers backing out from already made and yet still unpaid work in progress orders proves enough how immoral and callous the buyer/supplier relationship becomes during a crisis in a market economy. The billion-dollar fashion industry covers and involves a huge variety of sectors and overall relies on consumerism. And of course, this reliance is very toxic and unsustainable. The supply/demand model many retailers base their business on continues to pour in the wealth to the greedy at the top whilst the many others lose out through low wages, poor working conditions and toxic materials (oh and not to forget the customers who lose money constantly in an aid to help themselves feel better for spending).
Fast fashion retailers have made efforts to make their high throughput to landfill from recycled or more sustainable materials. However, this isn’t enough to off-set the sheer amount produced then disposed of to regain balance with and stop polluting the natural environment. Trend led design within a quick turnaround for last minute large orders are also a huge cause of quickly disposed garments soon after a couple of wears by the user.
During the pandemic
Nobody expected the sheer impact of the coronavirus generally, let along the big hit to fashion both in the UK and globally. Despite the government’s promise to pay retail workers 80% of their wage, this is not the full picture. Many may be only contracted a small number of hours per week or even tied to zero hours. So many people rely on these wages and in particular students who have a lot of pressure with university work – and now of course, potentially very little or no income. The increase of panic buying has also increased the consumption of single use plastics and other instantaneously disposable products. For hygiene reasons this is completely understandable, but this mirrors the high consumption then instant disposal of clothing from the fast fashion model, which is completely unacceptable. Garment workers in manufacturing are hugely impacted with reduced or no pay if high street retailers are just suddenly withdrawing orders. Suppliers usually receiving a demand for thousands of units per week now cannot afford to pay workers due to less labour input. This poses the crucial need – now more than ever than ever – for fashion to become even more sustainable. Both retailers and consumer have a duty where possible for helping with this both during and after the global crisis.
Within our current economy, retailers have a responsibility to supply products at a quantity to meet the demand for them. Fast fashion products are traditionally trend-led on a bi-seasonal occasion, now even more occasionally thanks to online retail giants capitalising on smaller micro-trends bringing out new produce on a weekly basis.
Design for duration
It’s not just the material consideration that’s important, retailers ought to be using this time to consider how they can best design and work with existing infrastructure to continue to make supply chains sustainable. This includes looking at transition periods to reduce the negative impact socially for workers and the local economies to manufacturing as well as introducing better waste management solutions. Using waste more effectively as a material itself and changing the public perception from unusable to just another resource that can be used. Reducing the quantity of products within a collection and number of collections per year would also be a good start.
Retailers need to learn to prioritise their investments throughout the company and which supplier they decide to invest in. The main things to consider are employee welfare throughout the supply chain (not just splashing out on large head office parties every month), safe facilities for manufacturers to produce in as well as infrastructure designed to help achieve sustainable practise throughout the supply chain.
Since I started writing this article, it was also announced that Primark have supposedly set up a wage fund for the garment workers within the manufacturing parts of the supply chain. However, this should have debatably not just been a pledge in response to the public outrage over claims against the cancellation of orders.
We have seen an increase in brands being more inclusive towards body shapes, race and gender when marketing fashion and beauty. However, there is still a long way to go. Airbrushing is still very common and body hair still appears to be a taboo within society. Influencers are continuing to use social media platforms to advertise using ‘aspirational’ lifestyles continuously making others look up to and desire a luxurious life on the beach as a minimum to satisfy happiness levels. Particularly with the Stay Home campaign, this could be a really good opportunity for retailers to become even more inclusive by helping people to realise that however they are in that moment, they are perfectly okay. It’s okay not to be doing ‘big’ things, it’s okay not to be constantly striving for the next best opportunity. Everyone is normal and we are all in this together.
Many sources have aimed to demonstrate that despite the challenging times, there are still things we can control, particularly when it comes to our wellbeing. This can also be applied to our spending habits where possible.
Shopping at local businesses for food has become more popular where independent grocery stores are available. Many people will always go straight to the larger chains and without a doubt they are more likely to stay in business regardless. This is the same with fashion. Often independent stores also use less packaging due to buying in fresh produce or can at least offer no or minimal packaging. Smaller online businesses use Depop and Etsy offering you the chance to invest in small start-ups and very often ethical businesses.
Many charity and second-hand shops will currently be closed; however, many are using Depop and their usual online stores to continue to sell. Just a reminder to wash clothes before selling or wearing them, and of course if it is possible then to use recyclable or bio-degradable packaging to post your pre-loved pieces. This will be a difficult time for those charity shops with no online retail, so please do where possible donate any spare change to charitable causes.
A holiday for hobbies
For those that need a break from things, why not get crafting? This could be upcycling old clothes you don’t want to get rid of or stitching with those fabrics you’ve been meaning to stitch together. Knitting and crocheting are a really helpful temporary distraction from the frantic world too. If you already have a set of needles and ball of yarn, go for it! If not, there are plenty of retailers online still selling for you to get your hands knitting and purling.
Given that it so much conflicting information flying around about materials when considering purchasing an item of clothing, this to me demonstrates just how important it is to focus on the speed and quantity at which garments are produced and purchased. There is not a lot wrong with purchasing a brand-new item of clothing from a high street retailer. Fast fashion has democratised the access to fashionable clothing through being more affordable (from a consumer perspective) for many who would not usually be able to afford it. However, if you do, make sure it is something that can last for at least 30 wears (hopefully way more of course) – a campaign set by Livia Firth at Eco Age. Make sure that the clothes you buy, you absolutely love and could see wearing for a long time. With this, we are also considering quality, care/laundering and how many different ways we can style an item to wear for a variety of occasions. Of course, this isn’t an encouragement justifying always purchasing new items of clothing; using the options above would be much more beneficial to prioritise for sustainable fashion consumption. This point can also be used from a retailer design perspective too.
Post Covid and reliance on our happiness
The pandemic has so far been a wake-up-call for fashion retailers; things cannot continue as they are. No matter how much you change a product design to become more recyclable or biodegradable, the speed and amount of fashion produced is really what matters. Not only does this reduce the amount we consume in a much smaller amount of time for the environment’s sake, but it also reduces the instant highs and social pressure we constantly rely on for happiness. And of course, spares us some cash that could be contributed to others causes and services within society or saved for our future benefit.
People still rely on the industry for their livelihood both locally to us and globally within the supply chain. We cannot undermine the impact that reducing orders could have in terms of greed from those at the top still wanting to pressure the workers suffering. This is a transition we must look at developing in order to achieve a sustainable economy that benefits the planet both environmentally and socially. Hopefully slowing the throughput of production would lift a good amount of pressure, empowering vulnerable workers throughout the supply chain.
Given that many people are still able to use this time to get back to their roots to their personal wellbeing and values, it is time for retailers to prioritise adopting new strategies to practise and promote equality throughout the supply chain.