Oil is at zero
Profit is subservient to health
Economies are crumbling and
Digital is booming
What does all this mean for the fashion and retail industry?
Before the pandemic, consumers, companies and suppliers were caught in an unending race to make, ship and sell. Just in time fashion was popularized as the way of doing business with almost two collections being launched every month. Faster was better. Optimization of labour and processes was the fuel that fed the system. In turn the system fulfilled the huge customer demand of trendy, cheap, beautiful clothes that were worn just a couple of times and reached landfills that dot almost every part of the world.
The wasteful nature of fashion companies was in stark contrast to the sustainability and climate change narrative that was needed to stop waste in manufacturing, shipping and use. Now that cities have stopped, the clothes consumption cycle has stopped too. This has meant a pile up of things in the entire fashion and textile supply chain. It’s not just oil companies that are desperate to get rid of excess oil, apparel and lifestyle companies have huge stocks of inventory of finished and unfinished products waiting to be offloaded.
So, what will happen after the lockdown ends? Will we see a frenzy of consumption? Will we see fashion starved consumers queuing to the stores? Yes and No.
While companies are hopeful that customers will come back, there is caution in the air. The spring-summer season will pretty much be gone by the time customers return to stores. An unimaginable loss for the industry. So, the summer inventory might be shifted to regions that still have a warm climate. Even then, the pause button has been hit upon the thousands of factories in India, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other parts of Asia that survive on the textile trade. Several large brands have canceled orders and downstream suppliers are in a fix. According to Drapers, more than 1,100 factories in Bangladesh are currently closed and around $3.08bn (£2.4bn) worth of exports have been canceled or suspended.
While everyone is nostalgically looking at what the sector was just a few months back, perhaps it’s time to pause and reflect whether it’s worthwhile to go back to fashion the way it used to be. Cheap fashion also meant irresponsible and exploitative manufacturing and irresponsible consumption. Despite best efforts of textile manufacturers, large brands were not willing to pay the price of innovation and sustainable production. Despite talking endlessly of safety and health, workers were routinely underpaid and exploited. Now, the situation is even more dire, with people being laid off in stores, as well as in manufacturing. Further, the large opaque supply chains also meant that brands didn’t really know what they were selling, who made it and what it contained. Traceability was a huge challenge. For instance, the provenance of a fabric was doubtful, was a garment 80% cotton and 20% polyester, no one knew!
Some months back, Brand consultant Zia Patel had remarked, “Moving people from not giving a damn about sustainability to considering it crucial is a big bridge to cross. Traceability, authenticity or even slow fashion are not yet on most people’s radar.” But now, we are in the middle of a phase shift, consumers have been forced to stop the consumption treadmill and they are seeing for themselves the impact that thoughtless consumption has had on the world. The old excuse of fast fashion, “customers demand it” is not valid anymore.
Customers are demanding many more things. Safety and traceability being the foremost. This essentially means that product trials will possible change for ever. Apparel stores and brands have always encouraged product trials, once you try out a product in a store its then put back on the stand. In today’s times, you need to keep the garments safe and infection free, trials of the same product can’t really be allowed. Customers will now want the flexibility that trials allow but also the certification that they are safe. If similar lockdowns happen at different locations at other times, customers may want to visit not the large fancy malls but the stores close to them.
We need a new social contract for fashion. One that does not degrade the environment, one that values workers rights and one that is based on conscious consumerism. A new kind of leadership is needed, one that can create an ethical, responsible environment and not one that exploits both land and labour. The current environment begets an important recalibration of business models, the start of a journey to building resilient systems and a humane approach to people.
About the author
Namrata Rana is the Director Brand & Strategy, Futurescape, whose work focuses on building ESG strategy and transformation through customer journey mapping and leadership workshops. She writes extensively in various publications and has co-authored BALANCE – Responsible business for the digital age.