How the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the fashion industry
Updated: May 13, 2020
As there's already a lot of content on the difficulties within the industry out there, I want to pull together the facts I have gathered from challenges faced at the side of selling and purchasing goods, as well as those issues that are piling up in the places where our clothes are actually made. I want to take you not only to a consumer perspective of the current situation but also towards a more integral approach of looking at the huge potentials in the supply chain, to repurpose this crisis. Yet, this isn't a story about choosing sides at all. It really is about seeing the entanglement of it all.
According to The State of Fashion 2020 report by the Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company „The interconnectedness of the industry is making it harder for businesses to plan ahead.“ But before we jump ahead, let me give you some simplified context on the current issues.
Lockdowns causing unemployment across the whole chain
The lockdown situation in varying time schemes across the planet has lead to short-time work, joblessness and a lack in demand and cashflow on the retail and consumer side of things. As a reaction to the lack in demand and a fear of having inventory that has no place to go or be sold, fast fashion brands have been canceling their orders trying to save money, that in fact, has already been spent. By the suppliers, for raw materials and workforce. As most orders are paid on delivery or after, garment factories are now hugely struggling to pay their employees and subcontractors for work that has already been done.1
Joblessness leading to severe conditions in low-cost-manufacturing countries
Now it shouldn't be any news that the conditions in low-cost-manufacturing countries2 aren't necessarily a guarantee for humane working and living conditions, to begin with. But setting off millions of people unemployed will have disastrous outcomes with struggles of survival. “Retailers are calling on the governments of garment-producing countries to provide support for workers, but if you’re going to base your hugely profitable supply chain in countries where you know no such social safety net is available, you have to take responsibility when things go wrong” says Aruna Kashyap senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, on The Guardian.
A wake-up call
Clearly there is no easy answer, no one-way road and no singular miracle solution for challenges like the current ones. While a lot of questions regarding order cancelations, season skips, lack of demand or failure to reach factory-demanded minimum quantities have to be answered at the brink of the moment, this pandemic is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but I think for most of them at this end of the value chain it must be a wake-up call. A call to slow down. To re-value creativity and craftmanship. to rethink. If you're privileged enough to do so. Because the disastrous problems that, especially, garment workers are faced with in this crisis, have really been there all along.
Transparency ringing The pandemic is bringing transparency and acceleration of urgency to an industry-made disaster that has been built up for decades.3 Transparency not only spreads obscured information on working conditions faster and wider, it also calls up brands to take on the responsibility of their value streams. And responsibility really goes both ways. Towards the customer and the supplier.
Open the door: visibility for the customer Customers should be made aware of the impact of their purchase. Like signing a contract for an apartment, you don't only want to know there's a pretty front door, you want to see the inside as well before you move in. Well the inside of a 5-Dollar shirt looks a little like this: pesticides used on cotton fields threatening environmental stability and farmer's health, causing exploitation of workforce and exposure to chemicals and non-ventilated, noisy facilities at the factories, to name a few. Staying responsible as a brand, also in times of crisis, towards their suppliers means not blaming a lack of demand for overproduced goods on „force majeure“ to find a loophole in their contract, leaving thousands of workers without pay. It's a question of integrity.
A simple equation Suppliers are a vital part of a value chain, without supply, there is no potential profit off any demand, what so ever. So I think it's time to turn things around, to rethink where the value of a brand is put into action. The most crucial part of a brand's value is driven by the demand created through the customer. This pandemic not only brings a major shift in customer awareness and expectation towards a brand's purpose and production, but it also interlinks the customer's question of „what do I really need?“ to the question companies should be co-dependently asking themselves as „how do we want to manufacture?“
This is not about choosing sides, it's about interconnectedness
Conclusionally, the interconnectedness of a supply chain is a mirror to the interconnectedness in any given system. It's a mirror of what happens when a system is disrupted by disease, similar to how we are disrupting our planet's health by polluting it in countless ways, on levels of environmental and social responsibility. Sooner or later it guarantees a breakdown. Meaning we cannot go exploit one part of the system for the benefit of another part without at some point being confronted with the effects of the exploitation. We have a saying in German that says, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Which is why we need to finally realize we vote with every dollar we spend. Yet, in the many ways of rooting for balance and equality within a supply chain, „there's a lot more we can do, that doesn't involve a credit card“ as Adity Mayer explains on the article linked below.4
Pivoting potential As the garment industry is not only one of the top streams of employment for a lot of countries, but also one of the top polluters of our planet5, restructuring it towards a system, that strengthens its weak links to a chain that is resilient, adaptable and therefore able to sustain itself, is the next step forward. According to The State of Fashion 2020 report by the Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company some possible shifts in the industry include „digital step change, in-season retail and seasonless design“. In correlation with this, some steps further down the line could be to reconsider the lifespan of a garment and the expansion of its lifecycle. From design for recycling to post-consumer responsibility systems of reusing and re-integrating the garment into up- or downcycling methods such as rental systems, repair, and re-fiber systems or repurposing it towards building and insolation. In the face of production agendas that focus on as much quantity for as little money as possible, re-evaluating stock demands and the true value of „scale“ effects could have a positive influence on avoiding over-production and improve the efficiency of resource input. Again, there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
Transparency is the first step In the abundance of brands and creatives in fashion, there will synchronically be an abundance of solutions to reinvent. Yet, I do believe any of them will rely on transparency as a key in efficiently and effectively, staying accountable for costumers and suppliers alike. I believe in the scientifically proven concept of interconnectedness and I believe that this industry holds the financial and creative power to make the change happen. As Jane Goodall puts it "You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."
2Disclaimer: sweatshop conditions in garment making are not limited to „developing countries“gratefully referring to Adity Mayer, who is pointing out the issues of social injustice in the ethical fashion movement in her admirable work.
3BusinessofFashion.com on Is This the End of Wholesale, or the Beginning of Something Better?, Apr 7, 2020
4Adimay.com on How To: Conscious Consumerism without a Pricetag, May 13, 2017
5Businessinsider.de on How Fast Fashion hurts the planet through pollution, Oct 21, 2019