‘COVID Didn’t Break Fashion Industry — It Exposed A Broken System’

“COVID-19 pandemic has offered enough time for the fashion industry to slow down & re-evaluate industry practices.”

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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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 pandemic has not just broken the fashion industry, but it has exposed an already broken industry.

The fashion industry, by definition, includes stakeholders involved with the design, production, manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of raw materials, clothing, textile, accessories, and footwear.

While the global economic situation has sharpened focus on the negligent supply chains and business operations, some glaring facts should concern global citizens.

What’s A Fashion Supply Chain Like?

To foster ease in exposing the effect of the pandemic, we divide a simple fashion supply chain into three phases:

  • Sourcing & Design: Supplier firms reeled with major shocks when faced with raw material shortages from China in February 2020. The chain reaction was realised on production rates in countries dependent on imported raw materials; for example, Myanmar saw the closure of at least 20 factories and the loss of 10,000 jobs. However, some institutions like FDCI (The Fashion Design Council of India) came to the resume of small businesses and young designers by extending a COVID-19 Support Fund.
  • 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 the impact on their employees. As per Bloomberg, in Bangladesh, about 1,089 garment factories shut down, and orders worth USD 1.5 billion were canceled, resulting in more than 2 million workers being fired or furloughed. The exact situation was replicated in other countries where apparel production is a significant export revenue source, like Cambodia, Vietnam, and India.
  • Distribution and Retail: Nationwide lockdowns meant store closures leading to a negative outcome for the whole 2020 Spring-Summer fashion season. While some brands such as J Crew, Neiman Marcus, and ALDO were forced to file for bankruptcy, others made the most of the crisis. Lululemon saw increased demand for comfortable sweatpants best suited for work from home environment. Bath & Body Works amped up their sanitiser production. Luxury lineage brands Louis Vuitton and Chanel played on consumers’ behaviour’s ‘mortality salience.’ They successfully sold their merchandise after increasing the prices.

Bringing Reality Of Fashion Industry To Focus

In response to the unraveling industry hit by the pandemic, the ILO (International Labor Organization) asked brands to endorse a non-binding ‘COVID-19 Action Plan for the Garment Industry’ publicly. The plan included maintaining open communication lines with suppliers, providing direct support to factories, and paying for finished and partially-finished goods.

However, the fashion industry isn’t built for agility, and the pandemic proved it. How about we strive to bring in the perspective and reality of the fashion industry’s factory floor to focus?

On the production floor, it is common for workers to meet targets by producing 80 to 90 pieces every 23 minutes, as per research conducted by Indonesia’s Sedane Labor Resource Center. To avoid missing their targets, employees do unpaid overtime work and regularly avoid going to the bathroom, which has serious 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 illegally to help with period pain. When repeatedly used over a long time, this 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. While the pandemic built empathy amongst global citizens, a lot has to be done to encourage a non-vulnerable fashion supply chain.

Here’s How Much Water Is Spent Making T-Shirts — And Why We Need ‘Slow Fashion’

Slow fashion’ is an intelligent yet important plea to move away from the disastrous effects of non-sustainable fast fashion. It has found its support from industry leaders, such as Giorgio Armani or Ellen MacArthur. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a proponent of the circular economy, launched the Make Fashion Circular initiative that promotes clothes made from renewable material and turning old clothes into new ones. This initiative has already brought together brands such as GAP, Burberry, H&M, Nike, and Stella McCartney, together.

The world sells and buys 2 billion t-shirts annually, making them one of the world’s most common garments. While 3,250 litres is the amount of water needed to create one cotton t-shirt, WWF (World Wildlife Fund) suggests that that is also equal to three years’ worth of drinking water.

In fact, the water required to create one leather shoe is equal to 4 times that of a cotton t-shirt, and one pair of jeans is equal to 3 times that of the same cotton t-shirt.

COVID Pandemic Is A Chance For Fashion Biz To Slow Down — And How

On an individual level, here’s what we can do to keep our planet-friendly footprint high.

  1. Take better care of clothes and invest in good quality clothing. By extending our garments’ life cycle by nine months, we can reduce our clothing’s water footprint by about 5-10 percent
  2. Buy only certified organic cotton (grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers) or apparel employing waterless dyeing and low-impact dyes to dramatically reduce water pollution
  3. Embrace eco-friendly alternative textiles such as bamboo or hemp that will benefit the environment. For example, hemp uses 50 percent less water than cotton to make a t-shirt

The pandemic has offered enough time for the fashion industry to slow down and think beyond just extending an identity and individual expression to its end consumers. It is an opportunity to re-evaluate industry practices, streamline, and coordinate efforts to prioritise sustainable and strengthened business supply chains. Investing in a sustainable future seems like the only foolproof option for ensuring the triple bottom line – People, Profits, and Planet as well as the Purpose of the global fashion industry.

(Devieka Gautam is passionate about wow-ing customers and building BRANDxHOOD, an online media-tech company that empowers brands to become customer-centric. You can reach out to her @BRANDxHOOD on Instagram. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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