The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the shift of consumers toward more green and local forms of fashion, writes Mariam Harutyunyan. As high streets haemorrhage, fashion will need to fundamentally remodel itself, she argues.
Mariam Harutyunyan is the founder of Belgian sustainable streetwear brand KinArmat.
For too long the fashion industry has operated on a model of exploitation which places profit above persons and planet.
While climate change is often synonymous with industries like meat, aviation and oil, the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions – more than aviation and shipping combined. However, due to the effects of the pandemic, this destructive model may finally meet its demise.
Few industries suffered more in 2020 than retail and fashion; Topshop, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew and Lord & Taylor joined dozens of global fashion giants as victims of COVID-19.
The pandemic and consequent lockdowns triggered extraordinary challenges for the fashion industry amidst broken supply chains and decreased consumer spending which caused worldwide profits to decline 93%.
But the crisis has also exposed the faults of an industry deeply dependent on fast fashion, cheap textiles and distant supply chains to quench a thirst for profit at the expense of the environment.
‘Fast fashion’ trends cycle through a massive 52 ‘micro-seasons’ a year with trends appearing rapidly, becoming oversaturated, and then disappearing within as little as a week.
To produce mass amounts of affordable clothes, retailers rely on petrochemical textiles (fabrics made from plastic materials like nylon or polyester), and cellulosic fibres (fabrics made from plant materials like rayon or viscose).
Plant-based fibres were originally marketed as an alternative, eco-friendly option to plastic-based textiles after research showed materials like polyester were polluting oceans with microplastics.
Shockingly, these materials contribute approximately 236,000 tonnes of microplastics, or 35% of all microplastic pollution each year. However, as consumers shifted towards cellulose fabrics they unknowingly contributed to mass deforestation, particularly in ancient rainforests, where some 150 million trees are cut down annually in the name of fashion.
There’s a particular irony in trading one unsustainable commodity for another marketed as sustainable but in reality equally or even more destructive. When the cosmetics industry was criticized for its relationship with palm oil – a vegetable oil linked to deforestation – many companies switched to coconut oil.
Yet recent research shows that coconut oil requires five times more land than palm oil to produce the same amount of product.
By demonising palm oil wholesale – instead of supporting sustainable palm oil which in recent years has contributed to record declines in the rate of deforestation among major producers like Malaysia – the makeup industry could now be contributing to even greater deforestation.
Which, perhaps, will not sit well with consumers. Indeed, sustainability is proving essential to survival in a more direct way. It’s now increasingly recognised that deforestation is linked to an increase in zoonotic diseases. COVID-19 is sparking consumers to reevaluate their relationship with nature.
Two-thirds of consumers now believe it’s even more crucial to minimise environmental impacts, while 88% wish more was done to address pollution. As a stark predictor of future sentiment, 90% of Gen-Z consumers believe businesses have a moral responsibility to address social and environmental issues.
The call for greener fashion could not come soon enough. If fashion fails to address this problem, the industry will contribute 26% of the world’s greenhouse gases by 2050, escalating the risk of future global crises.
As someone who’s launched my own sustainable fashion brand, I know that a circular fashion economy which ensures sustainable sourcing, manufacturing, distribution and recycling is possible. As COVID-19 devastates the traditional ‘fast fashion’ industry titans, a new space is emerging to revolutionise the industry.
One major reason that the pandemic has hit fashion so hard is that brands outsource production to manufacturers in Africa and Asia where workers face horrendous conditions – where low-skill, short term, and low-wage jobs are the norm and where pristine forests are cleared to boost rocketing textiles production.
By outsourcing labour and relying on wide-spread supply chains, brands were unable to mitigate pandemic risks.
But brands can promote traceability and transparency in their production line if they reduce the geographical size of the supply chain. Rather than relying on cheap labour and suppliers, fashion brands can emphasise worker safety and business-to-business relationships which stabilise and reveal a supply chain rewarded by sustainable practices.
And this doesn’t mean ‘greenwashing,’ or meaningless verbal commitments to sustainability. It means embracing a circular economy that is sustainable in framework and execution.
A circular economy in fashion means ensuring products and resources are sustainably sourced and comprised of eco-friendly materials, which stay in circulation as long as possible before being recycled into new products.
The pandemic should be viewed as a reset button for an industry that’s notoriously escaped scrutiny.
Instead of blaming external commodities and shielding behind invisible supply chains, the fashion industry must follow the growing priorities of consumers by addressing its role in deforestation, committing to transparent sourcing and sustainable materials, as well as protecting workers and the environment.
COVID-19 is killing fast fashion giants. To survive, brands must listen to consumers and embrace the green revolution.