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Report Warns Sustainable Fashion May Take a Backseat in Pandemic Recovery

Throughout the seemingly endless year that is 2020, fashion figureheads found solace in the belief that the pandemic served as an opportunity to reset and adjust priorities accordingly. Experts throughout the supply chain, consultants and designers predicted an industry-wide disruption that would ultimately lead to better sustainability.

But a new report is challenging this notion.

Data and analytics company GlobalData warns that sustainable fashion could become a “Covid-19 casualty” as companies scramble to stay afloat. In light of the year’s bankruptcies and store closures, and with a second wave of the virus crashing ashore in some parts of the world, companies are shifting their focus to liquidity.

“Before the pandemic, the fashion industry had seen some sizeable shifts in sustainability such as investment in new technologies and new manufacturing models, the elimination of hazardous chemicals, reductions in CO2 emissions and the adoption of circular economy practices all featuring high on company agendas,” said Michelle Russell, apparel correspondent for GlobalData. “However, Covid-19 has changed consumers’ purchasing habits and it has had a material impact on the ability of businesses to fund projects to meet their sustainability targets. Excess stock in the supply chain as a result of store closures during lockdown has only exacerbated the problem.”

Companies are now prioritizing “survival over winning in the green stakes,” it said, pointing to a recent report from the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) detailing the progress of its circularity initiative. According to the report, signatories missed more than one-third of the initiative’s goals for the year.

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Of the 217 targets set, participating fashion brands reached 132, with some brands even withdrawing from the commitment altogether, citing the pandemic and its related logistical challenges as one of the main reasons for the gap.

The company also called attention to this year’s Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which failed to feature Adidas, a company that had been included for 20 consecutive years and was recently named an industry leader.

Looking ahead, Russell believes the impending economic recession is “likely to wreak further damage” across the board. But the future isn’t completely grim, she said. Like others in the fashion industry, she believes there are significant opportunities to reset—specifically in terms of transparency.

“In an optimistic scenario, brands and retailers will approach their ambitious sustainability goals with renewed vigor in 2021, and they will see the pandemic as an opportunity to re-evaluate the fashion retail model to be more ethical and sustainable as shoppers develop greater antipathy towards wasteful business models,” she said. “Supply chain transparency could also see a renewed focus as the pandemic forces businesses to have greater control over their supply chains.”