Correction, Contraction, and Cessation. COVID-19 calls to action a sustainable fashion system

The carnage of closures from the impact of COVID-19 throughout the supply chain is forcing the industry to pause and re-set.  According to Mckinsey & Co., if stores remain closed for two months, 80 percent of publicly listed fashion companies in Europe and North America will be in financial distress. Revenues for the global fashion industry (apparel and footwear sectors) will contract by –27 to –30 percent in 2020 year-on-year.

A wake-up call it is on a massive scale.  As we witness an historical reality that affects every economic sector and every level within that sector, crisis management, contingency planning, recovery strategies, and re-invented business models are commanding the attention of leaders in the industry.

While struggling with the shock and horror, the industry is responding with reactive and impulsive measures.  The initial phase of the crisis has brought the industry to a screeching halt.  To no surprise, survival methods and non-strategic pursuits of mitigating financial loss are in effect.  Brands are finding ways to protect the front end of the business by exposing their products through virtual means, but abandoning the back end, the supply chain [what you don’t see] – jobless factory workers and sales clerks, bankrupt suppliers, shuttered factories, etc. – are victims, too, without a safety net.  To put into context, brands have cancelled orders, leaving billions of dollars of unused [unwanted at this point] fashion at different stages throughout the pipeline, therefore textile waste [and where does that get disposed of? Landfill? I hope not!].

Why work so hard on showing us what we think we need to buy?  With stay-at-home guidelines and an economic global shut-down, is there such a demand for fashion right now?  How essential is fast disposable fashion when priorities are quite different today?

Designers who work tirelessly on creating seasonal collection after collection, non-stop, were longing to get off the fast train, to look away from commercial mandates and revisit values.  Fashion is brutal to small independent designers and retailers [brick and mortar and online].  Fighting to survive, season after season against the bigger, faster, and constant churning of mega brands, was an uphill battle.  Oh, what a relief, yet painful.

This humanitarian and financial crisis heightens our awareness of another luring crisis.  Maybe the virus has helped humanity buy some time to the climate crisis.  Does the slowdown in carbon emissions become a respite for global climate change?  Conversations are at the forefront [once again] and the fashion/textile industry, known to contribute pollution and waste at extraordinary levels, is seeing the need to cease and correct a broken unsustainable system.  Fortunately, the pandemic will help gain speed and urgency to a purpose-driven, sustainable system.

Alena Kalana Designs, Photo Natasha Hayes

Re-set how, what, when, and why we consume!

How will the behavior of fashion consumption change over the next few years?  Yes, it will take years to plateau to a new normal, although signs of transition will be daily lived, experienced, and confronted along the way.  What does the future look like?

January of this year, I was interviewed by Arden Fanning Andrews, writer for PAPER magazine regarding my perspective on the future of fashion.  Here is what I had to say at that time and it still holds true to my vision today:

The future of fashion, I predict, will be one where both consumers and the supply chain have buried the reckless production, consumption, and throw away habits, shifting their values, to a future of circularity. 

We will be stewards of this circular fashion system.  Consumers will invest for longevity from purpose-driven, conscious brands.  Brands will develop product where the usage will extend over many years of life, passed down to the next generation and where the end use will not be the end of life – recycling, reusing, repairing, repurposing, upcycling – whatever it takes to keep textiles out of the landfill.  Holding the production facilities accountable, the future will be one of substantial reductions in waste, air and water pollution throughout the supply chain.  Closets will be mostly pre-owned treasures, secondhand, and/or upcycled designs.  THIS future of fashion will be the norm not the narrative.

PAPER magazine full article

We can’t go on as before.  We now have a blank canvas, a new start to re-tool a circular system.  Lasting beauty and value have sustainability.  Creating a system where everything is considered, has value, purpose, and longevity is the correction the universe has handed us.  When we get to the other side of the crisis, we as people will have altered, but will the industry have implemented this new value proposition? Will they have successfully led this historic transformation?  Time will tell.

Alena Kalana Designs, Photo Natasha Hayes

What can be done now? 

As this dynamic situation unfolds, daily reassessment is paramount.  However, what’s been lurking over time is a circular fashion system.  It is the elephant in the room, at least pre-pandemic. Unless you are a start-up or sustainable pioneer on the other end of the scale – such as Levis Strauss & Co. and Patagonia, very few brands talk about a circular economy for fashion, maybe because of the costs of infrastructure?  But the concept promises a post-pandemic business model, prompting fashion companies to be environmentally and socially responsible.  It presents an opportunity to think how reusing, recycling and repairing can become relevant to their businesses and transparent.  Consumer behavior has begun to shift this way.  Studies show 79% of consumers want more transparency and information from fashion brands on their commitment to sustainability.

Greenwashing, currently used by fast fashion giants who treat sustainability as a PR, marketing tactic with a small percentage of their assortment and supply chain addressing the sustainability crisis, will be a thing of the past. And their version of ‘sustainability’ is a linear model of producing a product to sell to the masses with no post-consumer responsibilities.

So much of pre-pandemic consumption behavior and infrastructure will be a thing of the past.

Right now, it’s so easy to react and go into crisis management mode, and we are at the beginning stages.  I believe the industry will be best served to pause and absorb what is happening, almost like stepping outside of the crisis and observing.  It creates an opportunity to study behaviors, patterns, trends, and to really listen and understand behavioral trends during the crisis, not exclusive to the fashion community, but all economic sectors.  This ‘pause and absorb’ phase allows strategic thinking and can formulate a path to meet the ‘new normal’, adapt to consumer behavior when it comes to consumption – what triggers people to engage.  What motivates them? What’s important to them?  The long-term effect of Covid-19 will have shifted consumption priorities, whether the industry is ready for it or not.

How can the industry learn from this crisis, be inspired for the future?  Slow it down, present scarcity, invest in a circular system.  That’s a good thing and a well needed beginning for the fashion world.

More information:

Take a look at Sustainable EDGE and be informed on designers, brands, and global initiatives that are making the case for a circular fashion economy.  Sustainable fashion is a big topic and as you tour the website, you’ll find vetted resources, reports, and links documenting this massive topic.  With periodic updates, we’ve done the homework for you.

Tibetan Transplant collection, Alena Kalana, designer.  Repurposed home textiles designed for longevity.  Photography: Natasha Hayes @myinfiniteadventure; Stylist: Liese Victoria @bellablankxo; Models: Carla @carla.e.n.; Stephanie @sdelossantos; Agency: Portfolio INTL Modeling Agency; Hair Stylist: Megan @hellahotroots; MUA: Sandra @lilacbat


Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor