Is Covid-19 a chance for sustainable fashion?

Beyond all the sadness and unease that 2020 brought to us, at least our environment was a big winner of the pandemic. Since the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter worldwide, there is room for assumption that the pandemic has a positive impact on the evolution of sustainable fashion. We have identified several implications that give reason for hope that we didn’t want to withhold from.

Positive effects from Covid-19 on our environment

The most obvious environmental benefit is that travel has diminished significantly across the globe. Some sources have reported that CO2 emissions dropped by 25 percent on average in urban centers around the world. In Venice, Italy, you could see fish and plants in the canal water for the first time in decades due to decreased boat traffic.

Changes in the fashion industry towards sustainability

Also, the fashion industry contributed its part to allow our planet a respite. In the year of nowhere to go physically, fashion companies introduced new categories and rethought production and raw materials. It was the year of resetting and questioning. According to the McKinsey & Business of Fashion’s “The State of Fashion 2020” report, this was the year that the industry ramped up its sustainable activities. That the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries, second only to oil, has been well-documented. The report says: “Consumers have demanded a clean-up, and 2020 will see the industry accelerate its engagement.”

The change is happening in different ways: Some brands develop new materials and ensure that products can be repaired or recycled. Gucci and Louis Vuitton, for instance, use deadstock for their productions as they had to find alternative sourcing options.

Even some big brands started to go seasonless. In Luxury, Gucci was the first one to go seasonless and cut down its fashion shows from five to two. Globally, brands focused on two prominent seasons and let go of “resort” and “prefall”. Going “seasonless” means that designers focus more on timeless clothing rather than trendy fashion with a short lifetime. This way, personal style gains more attention, and fashion as a service becomes less. This again helps to reduce consumers’ urge to adapt their wardrobe to constantly changing fashion trends and thus reduce consumption.

Some other brands got forced or decided to slow down their activities by reorganizing their strategies and slimming down their mass-consumption or -production concepts. This among others led to another change: concepts with less overproduction, less waste, and more circularity again.

Forced slow-down could become a case study for a future-save fashion model

Covid-19 has brought a new concept to light. Slowing down fast fashion by reducing seasons and focusing on quality instead of quantity. Vivienne Westwood reduced the size of its ready-to-wear business by 37 percent, bags by 55 percent and shoes by 58 percent over the past few years. Their actions proved that reducing speed doesn’t necessarily mean facing a lack of profitability.

“We can sell less, but sell better, and still be profitable.”

Global brand director at Vivienne Westwood, Christopher Di Pietro

Now their concept is the role model for a changing environment. What has been claimed to only work with regulations like taxing those actors more who pollute more, got now a single option to survive the crisis. We hope this need in combination with the already made policies and CSR plans, might lead to a long-term more natural slow down of the industry. We support the optimism of US designer Mara Hoffman who affirms our thesis: “Discomfort can be the greatest catalyst. It’s a gift to us.”.

Though, in a crisis, like the one we are facing, the very first priority is cutting costs. If priorities get shifted away from sustainability efforts, there will probably be no way around incentivizing companies to “build back better” through tax regulations.

Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer of the Global Fashion Agenda, is still concerned. He believes that the fashion industry just doesn’t get the urge for change.

“It’s contentious, but we need to explore how we can have a prosperous industry with less volume. The pandemic has only shown companies they have to [think about this] in order to become resilient. They need to prepare for when the climate crisis really kicks in and there’s resource scarcity. We know there aren’t enough resources in the world to continue as we are.”

Morton Lehmann

Massive overproduction triggers new business models

When sales are going down because consumer spending goes down as retail stores remain close, overproduction reaches a new level. Huge warehouse clearings with elusive discounts, like on Black Friday, led to impulse buys online. A rise in burned excess inventory fostered an already existing threat to our atmosphere and climate. But now, massive excess inventory brought not only the environmental but also the financial impact of it back to the center of attention – luckily. Revisiting business models in order to minimize excess inventory and to efficiently dispose it, became crucial. This need to simply survive the economic downturn will drive positive change in the long-term.

It is encouraging to see, that there are new business models evolving that were built to fight these issues. Queen of Raw is an online marketplace for deadstock resulting from overproduction. Stephanie Benedetto, one of the two founders of Queen of Raw, told us that they got a massive push from the crisis since a whole industry had to start looking for raw materials and supplies online. Since their launch in 2018, their platform enabled fashion companies to save 500 million tons of deadstock from being burned.

Spotlight on the brand-supplier-relationships forces transparency

Similarly, more public review on the relationship between brands and suppliers can push brands to act more responsibly. Reports of retailers canceling orders and delaying payments to suppliers in the wake of Covid-19 has brought into spotlight, how brands manage their relationships with supply chain partners. As a result many companies, from H&M to Primark, got pushed to announce that they are going to “honor their commitments“. However, details got swept behind the curtain so that we can just hope that the ones that already suffer from normal conditions don’t get treated even less fair due to savage cost-cutting initiatives.

Covid-19 brought minimalistic habits

Spending much more time at home than usual, consumers got confronted with their “stuff” more than ever. Possession and consumption got questioned, which resulted, among others, in huge wardrobe clearings. Globally, second-hand, subscription, and rental were the three fastest-growing retail categories, according to McKinsey, and thus also clothing disposal got in the center of attention. Unfortunately, the majority of sorted out clothes still lands in the regular household trash. This is mainly because there is still a huge lack of awareness for the ecological impact of textiles and it’s proper disposal. This is a tragedy. In fact, the burning process does not only release a lot of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the air but burning polyamide fabrics also releases plastic microfibres and other toxins that might be harmful to us and our wildlife.

Nevertheless, the textile collection and sorting companies had a big year as well. They were widely overwhelmed with the run on containers and Co. and kindly asked consumers on their websites to wait a bit before giving away their clothes as they couldn’t handle the masses of used clothes. For some people, the lockdown and home office have brought a new realization: You can easily live with much less and there is no vital need for shopping new clothes 60 times per year (indeed, this is the average fashion consumption per inhabitant in Europe). Let’s hope that the wardrobes didn’t get cleared to fill them with new stuff once we go back to offices and events. Let’s hope that people got more conscious of what’s essential.

An enduring fashion legacy from 2020: The face mask

Nobody in 2019 would have ever guessed that the No. 1 fashion item of 2020 would be a face mask. Some fashion companies with own production facilities were able to quickly change their productions from sportswear or shirts to face masks and managed to succeed from the sprung-out-from-nothing market. During the year they turned out to be a piece of solidarity. Not only because of the obvious reasons but also because they were an instrument for supporting consumers’ favorite brands and companies.


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