Why COVID-19 will drive fashion towards a sustainable future

Climate change has undoubtedly been a disruptive force that impacts industries in all sectors of the global economy, but the fashion industry is currently one of its primary instigators.    Widespread technological advancement, as a product of globalisation, has enabled new media to expose the impact of the fashion industry upon climate change. According to the World Bank, the garment industry accounts for just over 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 3,781 litres of water are required to manufacture a single pair of denim jeans.

Ultimately, every aspect of the manufacturing and production process of garments for the fashion industry creates pollution, particularly when the transportation of ‘finished’ garments from factories to in-store shelves is taken into account. The ability for the internet to ‘expose’ the manufacturing and supply chains has altered the power dynamic between the brand and the consumer and enabled greater transparency between the two. At present, consumers want to hold the fashion industry accountable for their contribution to global warming and environmental degradation, which is immediately reflected quantitatively in the form of loss of market capitalisation – in 2018 H&M lost 25% of its market value due to failings in this area. Furthermore, the fashion industry is often closely associated with global capitalism, and therefore through the activism of environmentalists such as Greta Thunberg, ‘consumer shaming’ has become much more potent. As both consumer focus’ have changed and online “shaming” has multiplied, transparency and a dedication to sustainability has become more important, and those firms who strengthen the vital trust between consumers and their brands are in a unique position to benefit.

This shift to sustainability has been exacerbated by COVID-19, illuminating the necessity for businesses to move towards more sustainable practices beyond simply ‘greenwashing’ the front end of the company. A McKinsey report published earlier this month predicts that profits within the fashion industry are expected to fall by 93% by the end of 2020. Such a decline will both persuade and in some cases force businesses within the fashion industry to entirely re-structure their approach to the retail market, so as to give themselves a competitive advantage in appealing to their consumers who have clearly changed their mindsets. A different report from McKinsey revealed that 2/3rds of consumers felt that the sector needed to limit impacts on climate change, with 57% having already made significant changes to lifestyles to do that since the start of the pandemic. Clearly, COVID has wrecked the typical retail fashion business model for the meantime as well as causing significant changes to the consumer that will render such a model less effective once retail reopens. Therein lies the reason why fashion has to move towards sustainability.

Given the clear evidence that sustainability is now business-critical for the fashion industry, leaders will need to integrate sustainable practices throughout their recovery strategies, making climate change central to post-pandemic decision making. By focusing on ensuring ethical practices are being pursued at the back-end of the supply chain, simultaneously adopting a circular economic approach, and investing in new environment-friendly, innovative technologies such as 3D printing and blockchain, sustainable and affordable fast fashion can be achieved. Equally, the pandemic has also shone a glaring spotlight over the fragility and fragmented nature of supply chains within the fashion industry. For this industry, regulatory practices do not serve as a fruitful solution, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as data shows, only aided 33% of business leaders towards a greener future. A single business cannot conquer the economic impacts of climate change and COVID-19 alone, cooperation in this highly competitive and individualistic industry is now critical – this cooperation will only come when firms are incentivised to move away from their traditional operations, for the reasons explained above. If cooperation is to occur, and this is obviously hypothetical, schemes such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) provided firms with methods to accurately measure the environmental and social labour impacts across the supply chain, and a prestige to demonstrate their efforts to limit environmental impact. 

The cascading effects of climate change and the pandemic have done irreversible damage to the global consumer and their demands. The fashion industry is beholden to these changes in order to preserve its sales. While this does not mean unsustainable, or “fast”, fashion will be eradicated, the previous equilibrium of the fashion industry has simply become untenable, and significant movement towards sustainability is inevitable. Ultimately, those who hop back on the sustainability train once they feel it is ‘convenient’ in the post-pandemic global economy will not be given a comfortable seat by the consumer or industry competition; those who invest earlier in reaching sustainable and affordable ends will prosper in the longer term.

by Charlotte Kemp 

Charlotte is a second year Liberal Arts student at King’s College London majoring in History and minoring in Politics. She is the Liaison Officer of the Business and Economics Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank where she explores the socio-economic impacts of globalisation on the global political economy at both the regional and national level. 

The featured image (top) is by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash.


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