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Industry Apr 20, 2020 7 min read

5 ways coronavirus is drawing attention to sustainable fashion

Outlining how COVID-19 is affecting sustainability and how best retailers can respond.

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While 2019 was dubbed the ‘Year of Sustainability’, four months into the new decade and the impact of COVID-19 will define 2020. This doesn’t mean retailers need to shelve their sustainability commitments. In fact, it’s a time for the fashion industry to reflect on their processes, as well as the toll it takes on people and the planet.

We round up how the outbreak has spotlighted sustainability and the direction for a greener future post-pandemic.

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1. Rethinking Fashion Weeks

Set to take place in June, Men’s Fashion Week has been called off due to the current pandemic, with the Milan and Paris shows joining the Women’s Fashion Week schedule in September. However, it still remains unpredictable as lockdown continues.

Fashion Week continuously came under fire pre-pandemic for its lack of eco-credentials as buyers and brands flew to four cities for two seasons a year.

A recent study from Zero to Market quantified the impact of travel, concluding that 241,000 tons of CO2 was produced during the 2018 shows – equivalent to the annual emissions of a small country. A combination of the above has forced the industry to reimagine what Fashion Week should look like.

Tokyo, Shanghai and Moscow have all made digital transitions, showcasing collections and shows online through live and pre-recorded media. With COVID-19 shedding light on climate change and sustainability, this could spark an overhaul of Fashion Week for the greener good.

Shanghai Fashion Week

• Took place over seven days with a mix of live shows and talks.

• Hosted by the online shopping platforms, Taobao and Tmall.

• Attracted 2.5 million users in the first three hours of streaming.

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Shanghai Fashion Week

Moscow Fashion Week

• Extended due to the record-breaking views on the first day.

• Half a million users tuned in to the online streams and lectures.

• Mercedes-Benz partnered with TikTok for lectures.

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Asomatav Spring 2020

What’s next?

From virtual showrooms to digitally produced samples and campaigns, the shift to digital will extend to other processes across the supply chain to save buyers from traveling and reduce waste. Retailers should look to technology for sustainable solutions where possible, including becoming more creative on social platforms.

Got EDITED access? Log in to view the lookbooks and video presentations shown during the digital version of Tokyo Fashion Week.

2. Helping fast fashion slow down

According to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the apparel industry accounts for 8% to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As coronavirus took hold, clear skies started to appear above the regions impacted the highest as people were mandated to stay inside. As factories shuttered in China at the start of the year, emissions fell by nearly 25%.

New product arrivals took a hit as brands experienced disruption to their supply chains. As each region surpassed 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, deliveries started to plummet. Looking at the top mass market retailers across the US and UK, new arrivals since the start of 2020 are down 11% YoY and continue to drop as cases rise.

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coronavirus

What’s next?

While consumption of fast fashion is experiencing a much-needed slowdown, the closing of brick-and-mortar stores has led to canceled orders, which is negatively impacting more than 50 million international garment workers.

This has resulted in an uprising of organizations drawing attention to the situation. On April 3rd, nonprofit Remake launched the #PayUp petition, calling out some of the largest fashion brands who owe more than $3 billion in future orders to garment factories across Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Cambodia. Companies such as Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Kiabi, PVH Corp. and Target have come forward and reportedly agreed to follow through their commitments to pay suppliers for orders already in production. Businesses need to maintain relationships with their suppliers and factory workers and support them during these challenging times.

Look to postpone orders and put a future action plan in place instead of canceling the deliveries of products already made. So factories won’t be left holding onto goods they are unable to sell. With COVID-19 causing furloughs and layoffs across the industry, retailers that were transparent and took care of their workers across all aspects of their business will emerge the strongest.

3. Shifting consumer mindsets

As consumers navigate this difficult period, it will lead to a change in mindsets and shopping behaviors. However, don’t wait till after the fact to get on board. Now is the time to cultivate authentic relationships with your customers to build engagement and brand loyalty.

What’s next?

With physical stores closed and online deliveries delayed as retailers respond to COVID-19, consumers are adapting by living with less. Retailers should look to push capsule wardrobes, focusing on the concept of ‘buy less, buy better.’

The demand for loungewear continues to rise as working from home becomes the new normal for many employees. Post-virus, consumers will seek out brands that they align with morally more than ever before, with an emphasis placed on conscious products. Eco-friendly loungewear is a fail-safe way to invest.

Wellbeing and self-care themes will take shape in the form of natural and organic products. From fresh produce to clothing, ‘clean’ and non-toxic materials and fibers will drive demand as health continues to be a top priority.

4. Connect with nature

Customers who returned to nature-based activities was a key learning from the 2008 global recession. According to the Outdoor Industries Association, participation in backpacking, mountain biking and trail running showed double-digit increases in 2008. As people settle into self-isolation, consumers have a newfound appreciation for nature, highlighting the importance of outdoor apparel. Hopefully, this will place issues around the environment top of mind for customers and further propel retailers’ sustainability efforts.

What’s next?

When quarantine lifts, retailers need to take this opportunity to promote holidaying locally to avoid added carbon emissions and overcrowding beaches.

Since summer getaways are pushed back till October, demand for swimwear will be building up. Sustainable swimwear has been an area of focus for some time and the content of your products will be of even greater importance when customers start traveling again. Use this time to rethink material alternatives to reduce microplastic waste, how to implement processes with a more positive environmental impact and ways to educate customers to best care for products.

Look to natural and biodegradable fabrics such as Natasha Tonic’s hemp collection. For hitting the waves, take note of Ansea’s wetsuits made from Yulex, a sustainably-grown plant-based alternative to neoprene, which requires 80% less CO2 emissions.

5. Repurposing deadstock fabrics

Retailers worldwide have pivoted their manufacturing to focus on producing hospital gowns, as well as medical and non-medical face masks. This movement has led to businesses repurposing excess material and deadstock fabrics that would have otherwise ended up in landfill to create washable and reusable protective gear.

Sandro is making masks out of upcycled materials from previous collections. Since baseball season is canceled, Fanatics is using the pinstriped fabric typically used for the Yankees uniforms to make masks and gowns. We are seeing a ‘buy one and give one’ system operating where many retailers are donating masks to hospitals and essential workers with every purchase, alongside encouragement for customers to create and donate their own gowns and masks.

What’s next?

As businesses are in overdrive to produce masks, the idea of non-medical face masks have risen up as a permanent accessory has arisen. Already a mainstay item in Asian countries worn to protect others, face masks as a fashion statement is gaining momentum worldwide during the pandemic.

Businesses wanting to tap into this trend need to do so sustainably and sensitively without profiting off the current situation. Look to brands such as Armed Angles, which are creating fashionable masks made from 100% organic cotton and donating 2€ per sale to Médecins Sans Frontières to help fight the outbreak.

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By Retail Analysts Ashley Graham & Kayla Marci