Tipping Point: After the Pandemic, Will the Fashion Industry Rebuild Sustainably?

Credit: wwd.com

After coronavirus, fashion industry experts foresee two paths for sustainability progress with risk of widening progress gap.

The sheer calamity that coronavirus has caused in the blink of an eye, severely impacting global industries, is foreboding of the challenges ahead.

They include a fashion industry and consumer that could look completely different than they do today.

Consumers are already professing to open their eyes to a new reality after the crisis passes. According to new consumer research from Coresight Research, surveying over 1,000 U.S. adults, close to half of the respondents expect to change their behaviors for the long-term after the outbreak ends.

“The gluttony of what we’ve gone through will subside, and we’ll buy what we need,” predicted J. Kirby Best, the chief executive officer and chairman of U.S.-based on-demand manufacturer OnPoint Manufacturing.

This includes upping hygiene, health precautions, as well as priorities of one’s loved ones. Trailing that are reduced physical interactions, more online shopping, less time spent in public places, less foreign travel, and as growing no-buy and low-buy consumer movements would forecast — less shopping overall.

“We’re moving away from disposable clothing. They’re going to be forced into it,” said Samuel Alexander, ceo of Austin, Texas-based firm C2C Fashion and Technology, LLC. “Less is going to be better.”

Production is going to mirror this change, according to Alexander, whose 40 years in the industry included the launch of brands like Willi Smith and Laundry by Shelli Segal, among others.

An Industry Reset?

Cabin fever is surely not so bad if time spent in isolation and thought can result in increased resilience or outright evolution of the industry, which is explored in the Tipping Point series by WWD. This time around WWD explores how sustainability priorities will shift post-pandemic, using the U.S. apparel industry as an immediate analysis.

A look back to mid-January in New York City shows how quickly things can change. Jacob K. Javits Center swelled with thousands for the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show, a staple for the retail industry, which is the largest private-sector employer in the U.S. By the end of the month, the Trump administration announced the first of its travel bans in China, which would later include Europe, Mexico and Canada, as retail doors began to shutter and job losses piled up. This week, the Javits center is being converted into a 1,000-bed makeshift hospital as New York City plans for the outbreak’s worst-case scenario, as NRF, the CFDA, British Fashion Council and others seek stimulus relief from their respective governments.

The industry is more or less on its knees, but even while down, companies across the globe are rushing to support communities and meet the need for urgent medical supplies.

Some say, optimistically, the pandemic will last just a couple of months but more realistically it will be much longer (more likely the fourth quarter of 2020, according to analysts).

Fashion brands and retailers are desperate to determine the extent of the fallout, with most saying it depends on how long the crisis lasts. Weeks will be painful, but most firms should recover. Months, however, and even the strongest might find it difficult to survive. Mass bankruptcies and subsequently mass unemployment could result. And even if the recovery begins later this spring, the priority of every company will, in the short term, be simply getting their operations back on track and trying to make up some of the business lost during the shutdown.

Consumers, sustainability, flying
Consumers profess reduced international travel and shopping in a recent report by Coresight Research.
Shutterstock / zoff

So, amid all of this, what is to be said of the industry’s “sustainability” progress, and why is the question more timely than ever?

Because the climate crisis is a health crisis, and no industry is immune — or at all prepared in either case.

“Every year, the world spends far more responding to disease outbreaks, natural disasters and other health emergencies than it does preparing for and preventing them,” reads a January report from the World Health Organization listing the “urgent health challenges for the next decade,” that align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. In no particular order, the WHO’s list includes infectious diseases, socioeconomic inequalities, water shortages, climate change and “preparing for epidemics” which are, naturally, “fanned by climate change.”

Speaking about the connection between climate change and near-term threats like an infectious disease, Kevin Eckerle, the director of corporate research and engagement at NYU’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business’s Return on Sustainability Investment Framework (ROSI), told WWD: “Planning for one, in isolation of the others, doesn’t prepare you to deal with the additive and multiplicative impacts of these things co-occurring – and they are co-occurring.”

Originally trained as an ecologist, in the past Eckerle was a senior sustainability strategy manager at Accenture. His work today involves helping corporate fashion partners like Eileen Fisher, Reformation and REI apply the ROSI tool to their business and quantify the financial impact of sustainable business investments.

But even he’s dishing a dose of reality on sustainability progress in the event of a worsening outbreak.

“The biggest challenge will be making new investments and continuing prior investments in sustainability if the negative economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to grow and reach the worst-case scenario,” said Eckerle.

If there’s a forecast for what lies ahead for the fashion industry in this unprecedented time, it may be seen as two lanes, that in either case, are to be navigated “responsibly and swiftly” by business leaders, in the words of Francois Souchet, lead of Make Fashion Circular at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit advancing industry-wide, sustainable change.

“In many businesses, their sustainability efforts have sat outside of their core business and may be seen as an additional cost. We can expect some of those businesses to pause those efforts as they look to survive the crisis,” said Souchet.

He continued to present the other scenario: “Others, who have moved to adopt more holistic strategies and adapt their business models already, may find they do not have to make such a trade-off.”

Echoing Souchet, Eckerle points to the 2008-2009 financial crisis that showed a “marked division in how companies pursued sustainability,” with “those who maintained that focus” and those that had to “put sustainability on the shelf as a ‘nice to have’ issue.”

“As a result, the gap between leaders and everyone else widened. We run the risk of that trend reoccurring,” reiterated Eckerle.

“Business as usual died last week. We are operating in a new world where flexibility, agility and alignment with consumer values is paramount. Once a business is congruent with consumer consciousness, that is when things get interesting and we will see progress very quickly,” said Stacy Flynn, ceo and cofounder of textiles innovation company Evrnu that calls Target, Levi’s and Stella McCartney as brand partners.

But perhaps it’s not so straightforward after all, as restoring business will invite a “combination of measures, some from the ‘business as usual’ toolkit, and some novel ones,” reiterated Souchet, who believes the “shock” of COVID-19 can present a moment to rethink the future of the industry in favor of the latter.

Automation was already making way for higher-skilled employment to potentially phase out hundreds of millions of jobs worldwide by 2030, according to a 2017 report by McKinsey and Company, since updated. And from last week’s estimates from the International Labour Organization, COVID-19 could wipe out nearly 25 million jobs. By comparison, the 2008-2009 global financial crisis increased global unemployment by 22 million.

After COVID-19 wanes, Alexander predicts brands that are on a more advanced sustainability pathway are going to be “desperate” for technology-driven solutions coming out of this pandemic.

In reinventing the fashion industry, he dubs hemp as the change-making fiber, re-shoring of just-in-time production, retail showrooming, Internet of Things technology, the $150 billion wearables market and new circular mind-sets as the way forward.

Asked what the first priority would be in financing sustainable change for the U.S. fashion industry, if given aid, to which Alexander said: “We can use the military to reshore our industry. That’s where that money ought to be going to — building out manufacturing.”

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