With exponential store closures, brands going bankrupt, absence of supplier protection, factory workers being furloughed, and hidden potency for revenge shopping, 2020 seemed like the beginning of a dystopian end for the glittering fashion world.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has not just broken the fashion industry, but it has exposed the broken industry.
The pandemic has offered enough time for the fashion industry to slow down and think about its effect on its stakeholders beyond extending a sense of identity and individual expression to the end consumers.
When we say fashion industry, we include stakeholders along the value chain involved with the production of raw materials, design manufacturing of clothing, textile, accessories, and footwear, to their distribution, consumption, and disposal.
While the global economic situation has brought about a sharp focus on vulnerable and negligent supply chains and business operations, some glaring facts should concern global citizens like you and me. To foster ease in exposing the pandemic effects, we divide a simple fashion supply chain into three phases:
1. Sourcing & Design
From this first phase of the fashion supply chain, supplier firms faced major shocks when faced with raw material shortages from China in February 2020.
The chain reaction was realized in countries’ production rates dependent on importing raw materials such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Myanmar, for example, saw the closure of at least 20 factories and the loss of 10,000 jobs.
Some in the form of The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), came to the resume of small businesses and young designers in need by extending a COVID-19 Support Fund.
2. Production & manufacturing
Many major fashion brands and retailers started canceling orders and stopping payments for orders already placed in response to the pandemic, taking no responsibility for its impact on the people working in their supply chains. This has also impacted the suppliers who get paid weeks, if not months after, post-delivery.
Per Bloomberg, in Bangladesh, about 1,089 garment factories shut down, and orders worth $1.5 billion were canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak resulting in more than 2 million workers in Bangladesh being fired or been furloughed. The situation finds itself being replicated in other countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and India, where apparel production is a significant revenue source in terms of export.
3. Distribution and Retail
Nationwide lockdowns meant offline store closures leading to a negative outcome for the whole Spring-Summer 2020 fashion season. While some brands such as True Religion Apparel, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Aldo, were forced to file for bankruptcy, others made the most of the crisis. Take Lululemon, which increased demand for comfortable sweatpants best suited for work from the home environment, or Bath & Body Works that amped up their sanitizer production. Or luxury lineage such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel that played on consumer behavior’s ‘mortality salience’ and successfully sold merchandise after increasing the prices! YOLO is for real, after all.
It was heartening to see e-commerce players, such as ASOS, Farfetch UK, and Zalando, contribute to the exciting shift towards accepting digital commerce by consumers, with a rise in D2C (Direct to consumer) business model and first-generation entrepreneurs.
While the industry is slowly regaining its strength from being in shambles, it is inching towards hoping to make a similar return after the 2008 financial crisis.
In response to the unraveling industry hit by the pandemic, the International Labor Organization has developed a “Call to Action.” It calls upon brands to endorse a non-binding “COVID-19 Action Plan for the Garment Industry” publicly. The plan has provisions for maintaining open communication lines with suppliers, provide direct support to factories, and has conditions for brands to pay for finished or partially-finished goods. Adidas Group, New Balance, and American Eagle Outfitters, and other international companies and nonprofit organizations have joined the bandwagon while others are yet to.
Unfortunately, the fashion industry isn’t built for agility, and the pandemic proved it. How about we strive to bring in perspective and reality of the fashion industry to focus. How about we delve into the factory floor’s reality?
On the production floor, it is common for workers to meet targets and produce 80 to 90 pieces every 23 minutes, per research conducted by Indonesia’s Sedane Labor Resource Center.
To not miss the targets and eventually their pay, workers do overtime without pay. They regularly avoid going to the bathroom, which has health consequences such as high urinary tract infections and improper menstrual hygiene.
In India, the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that female factory workers were even given unmarked pills to help with period pain illegally!
When repeatedly used over long periods, the medication can lead to side effects such as depression, anxiety, uterine fibroid tumors, and even miscarriages.
Tied by this common cause, those passionate about the fashion industry’s abysmal working conditions amplified their voices and asked the right questions via the #WhoMadeMyClothes initiative. A movement aimed at making fashion brands protect their employees in these times of economic and health crisis.
While COVID-19 has fostered empathy amongst global citizens and served as an opportunity for extending human rights to the workers, a lot has to be done to foster a non-vulnerable fashion supply chain.
Slow Fashion – an intelligent yet important plea to move away from the disastrous effects of non-sustainable fast Fashion has found its support from industry leaders, such as Giorgio Armani or Ellen MacArthur. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the proponent of the circular economy, promotes a fashion ecosystem where clothes are made from safe and renewable materials, and old clothes are turned into new. Its Make Fashion Circular initiative has already brought many industry leaders together, including GAP, Burberry, H&M, Nike, and Stella McCartney.
Three thousand two hundred and fifty liters! That is the amount of what it takes to produce the cotton needed for one t-shirt.
WWF suggests that that is also equal to three years’ worth of drinking water. Annually, the world sells and buys 2 billion t-shirts globally, making them one of the world’s most common garments.
The water used to create 1 leather shoe is equal to 4 times that of a cotton T-shirt, and 1 pair of jeans is equal to 3 times that of a cotton T-shirt.
But then a question arises – keeping humans aside (why, of course), who is to be blamed for this mess? Well, cotton for one.
Cotton is a famous thirsty crop that contributes to an enormous water footprint. In fact, it takes 20,000 liters of water to create just one kilogram of cotton.
What can we do to curb this?
⠀1. Take care of clothes or buying good quality. Suppose we extend our garments’ life cycle (especially our cotton garments) by nine months. In that case, we can reduce our clothing’s water footprint by about 5-10%!
⠀2. Another way to reduce your water impact is to buy only certified organic cotton. It is grown without synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers, which means you won’t be contributing to water pollution.
⠀3. Encourage buying brands that use waterless dyeing and low-impact dyes, and you will help reduce the pollution of waterways.
⠀4. Buy Eco-friendly alternative textiles such as Bamboo or Hemp. Yes, that’s right. Hemp uses 50% less water than cotton to make a t-shirt.
The COVID-19 pandemic asks the entire fashion industry needs to re-design its operating model. It presents itself as an opportunity to re-evaluate industry practices, streamline, and coordinate efforts to prioritize sustainable and strengthened business supply chains. As for the fashion industry, investing in sustainability seems like the only future proof option not just for the triple bottom line – People, Profits, and Planet but also for the Purpose of the industry.
Know more: Ellen MacArthurFoundation