We no longer live in the days of economist Milton Friedman who argued businesses only had a responsibility to their shareholders to increase profits, in an ever more globalised world and economy imply appearing to be pro or anti issues is not merely enough.
It’s March 2020. Almost everyone is in lockdown, desperately trying to adjust to new measures taken with the rise of the rapidly spreading COVID-19. We’re bored and we spend all of our time on the Internet. Somehow, you arrive on this website where you come across this jacket you feel you absolutely need. The next second, you’ve got your credit card in hand, inputting your details with the other. Order shipped! ….But now you can’t bear the waiting time, so you scour the net for a nice pair of shoes, a gorgeous dress, an interesting pair of jeans, and of course, new workout gear – because everyone has been working out during lockdown, right?
Many of us have had impulsive online shopping moments during the pandemic, even if it doesn’t quite offer the same experience as shopping in person. It seemed like the rather easy alternative – we were still able to get the majority of products we wanted, in a way that we were already accustomed to. But have we ever thought about the impacts COVID-19 has had on the fashion industry and everyone working in it?
Since fashion items fall under non-essential spending, it was easy to anticipate that it would be an industry deeply affected by the virus. In May, the UK’s apparel sector faced steep declines – with spending levels expected to be at merely a fifth of the usual, and sales of clothing and footwear to decline by £11.1 billion. With a drop in demand paired with store and factory closures, Asia, India, and the US are only some of the other regions that have been adversely affected by the pandemic.
Demand has plummeted due to a series of reasons. After social distancing measures were implemented around the world, retail closures soon followed. Keeping in mind that “more than 80% of transactions in the fashion industry still happen in physical stores” (Imran Amed), a drop in demand was bound to happen. Other than that, people found themselves thrown into a new lifestyle, mostly involving time at home, which inevitably led to changes in customer behaviour and spending habits.
Factory closures have caused mounting impact on unemployment. Since losing their job in the industry, many workers currently have no access to any social or financial support, and are dealing with great difficulties in taking care of themselves and their families, putting more pressures on top of the virus. Brands usually pay their suppliers weeks, or even months, after the order has been shipped. But as a result of the pandemic, brands have cancelled payments for already placed orders, not thinking about the effect this might have on the supply chain. In Bangladesh, thousands of factories shut down, with around $1.5 billion worth of cancelled orders. Even if brands supported retail and office workers that have been laid off during this period through compensations, they fail to acknowledge the needs of those who sit at the bottom of the supply chain, who are the most vulnerable of them all.
Meanwhile, some brands made active efforts to shift business activity online, trying to incentivise customers through attractive sales up to 70% off. This has been considered a very unsustainable approach. Even if they close physical stores, they are boosting sales online, meaning that suppliers are continuing to work at high capacity. Workers at ASOS and Boohoo have said that they do not feel safe while working in such close proximity to each other, in closed spaces, while we are currently dealing with the infectious virus.
However, despite all the challenges the pandemic has created for the fashion industry, they open opportunities for creativity regarding how the industry will evolve and react. Just like Dame Anna Wintour said, “I feel very strongly that when we come out at the other end, people’s values are really going to have shifted”, reminded of the ongoing “fast fashion” sustainability issues when talking about waste, consumption and excess. On the same note, Imran Amed said that the pandemic “is going to accelerate the fashion industry’s engagement with digital technology, and its desire to rethink the fashion calendar, but it will also accelerate the approach to sustainability and building responsible businesses. That means using supply chains that are creating clothing in a circular way and take into account the impact on the planet and the people who make our clothes.”
Brands have slowly started to adapt to the new needs that customers have developed while being in lockdown. For example, Ralph Lauren is currently positioning itself as a “lifestyle” brand which, other than their famous polo shirts aside, features towels, bedding, and dinnerware to resonate with current market demands. Similarly, other brands are trying to make the home-experience better and acknowledge the changes in customer needs, putting an extra emphasis on comfortable clothing, and creating the right elements to set the desirable at-home atmosphere.
With everything in mind, even if it’s “non-essential”, fashion is a part of all our lives. Though dealing with difficulties, the pandemic is accelerating the transition to a more sustainable fashion industry, that is also counting on us to adopt a mindset of longevity when it comes to our wardrobes. And now since social distancing measures are starting to relax around the world, what changes are we going to notice?
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