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Will Pandemic Put Off or Propel Fashion’s Sustainability Makeover?

This Earth Day may be the first the earth has gotten to celebrate since the event’s inception 50 years ago. As outside has forced everyone in to elude the coronavirus, nature has resurfaced, pollution has receded and mass production and consumption have considerably slowed.

And while many in the fashion industry are pushing out their celebratory sustainability reports highlighting much-needed advancements in lessening the sector’s impact on the world, COVID-19 has laid bare fashion’s critical need to unearth new ways to repent for its misdeeds.

In its rawest form, sustainability bears a two-fold meaning. On one side, it’s defined as the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and therefore contributing to greater ecological balance over the long-term. But the first, and oft forgotten definition of the word, is the ability to be sustained, supported or upheld.

This, by many accounts, is where fashion’s fault lines emerge. While emissions reductions and water treatment plants address the former, how does an over-reliance on low-cost production to make goods for which demand is indefinite—and so then ends up marked down or landfilled—contribute to an ability to be sustained or upheld?

Whether the industry is willing to admit it, the apparent answer is that it does not. And that’s why fashion’s only way forward may be to wholly reexamine its approach to much of what it has known, with sustainability as the driving force.

A way of life

“Sustainability is not something that fashion needs to become…I think it’s a way of life, and that way of life will emerge because, consciously, we will be made to think better,” said Akanksha Himatsingka, CEO of Himatsingka EMEA and Asia Pacific, and creative director and brainchild behind the India-based manufacturer’s conscious Himêya brand. “The coronavirus crisis will lead to a lot of rethinking of product offerings, how we travel, how we work. Everyday lives will be changed. I think it will become more concentrated on what is good for us.”

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The midst of this pandemic—which has companies and consumers alike captive with more time than they may have ever had to think and rethink their decisions and values—is the moment for fashion’s sea change.

“We across the industry, we make big promises, we have great intentions and ambitions, but there’s a lack of enforcement,” said Liz Simon, chief sustainable transformation officer at France’s Fashion3. “But it’s almost like we have to wait for a disaster to happen before we take the necessary action.”

It’s what the industry saw after the deadly Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh seven years back, which prompted a slew of collective efforts and agreements to protect factories and workers, but ultimately became a new series of boxes for many in the industry to tick, ensuring that their behavior fell in line with what the world wanted. Coronavirus could follow a similar course.

Slipping back into default mode, however, particularly where efforts around sustainability are concerned, won’t work this time, Simon said.

“We have to put sustainability as almost the first filter of strategic actions that companies then put forward,” she said, adding that a sustainable change means companies ask, “What is the purpose of a business? What is the purpose of a fashion business? And I think alongside that, what does value creation mean above dollar generation?”

For now, for many, it may seem an insurmountable challenge to value over revenue, especially when closed stores and depressed consumption means a paucity of the very revenue often necessary to give rein to sustainability teams to ramp up their efforts.

“One of my fears is that the sustainability agenda is pushed aside while brands and retailers do everything they can to stop the bleeding in the face of the dramatic drop in demand,” said Doug Cahn, founder of corporate responsibility consultancy The Cahn Group, who, in his former role at Reebok, created the company’s corporate social responsibility program.

Further, Cahn’s concern is that, “The integration within companies of CSR or ethical trade considerations with product creation teams, operations teams, supply chain management teams, is reduced instead of strengthened,” which, he added, will result in poorer medium- and long-term decision making.

It’s a reality fashion will face.

Will pandemic deprioritize sustainability?

As Global Fashion Agenda chief sustainability officer Morten Lehmann noted, retailers might pull from their environmentally focused teams to fill new COVID-19 crisis management teams.

“Maybe there’s some reallocation of staff, that means that they can’t pursue that with the same energy that they did before, even though the business case is pretty clear,” he said.

And things will travel right up the supply chain, as manufacturers fielding cancelled orders and a cash-flow crisis because of the holding pattern the pandemic has put everything in, may not be able to prioritize sustainability accordingly either.

“For some manufacturers, when they’re trying to find the money to pay their employees and find ways to store the materials and find ways to secure their employees in the future, then [sustainability] becomes second, even though the business case in the longer run is good,” Lehmann said. “In a country where poverty is rife and you’re sending people into unemployment, then these, of course, are bigger questions than saving some water and greenhouse gasses.”

Consequently, fashion brands may still meet some of the 2020 sustainability goals they set, according to Cahn, simply as a result of the substantial scale back of the world’s noxious movements and the curbed production in its wake.

But what may come to the fore more than the realization (or lack thereof) of those goals, is that they can’t be a leading consideration in determining sustainability—and therefore, value. Eventually, but quickly, fashion will have to create a new vision for itself.

At Fashion3, Simon said the company is rethinking how it values the business, moving last year from a classic P&L to an E P&L, a monetary valuation that’s based both on business operations and an analysis of the company’s environmental impacts and its supply chain. The E P&L is something luxury group Kering has also championed as it works to green the world of high-end fashion.

The aim, Simon said, is “to understand the impact our six brands were having on the planet, and our intention is to introduce a third factor, which is from a social point of view, a people point of view, so how can we measure ourselves against the value that we produce socially.” Admittedly, she added, it’s “not easy because we’re so ingrained with looking at it from a profitability point of view that this will take time.”

Capital must factor as a major player in the sustainability conversation if the industry is to make it out of its unsustainable ways.

Generally, the fashion industry has been tied to shareholders seeking quarterly growth, which as Simon explained, has contributed to brands and retailers focusing on short-term decisions to deliver it. But it’s a short-sighted strategy that can’t sustain systemic change.

“If you don’t put full resources, or parallel resources, into pushing the transformational agenda, we get caught up every quarter in having to deliver this growth,” she said. The industry’s “absolute focus on entry margins” or “how you can buy your goods as cheaply as possible” has also led fashion to the constant cheap-chasing that saw its supply chains move from China to Bangladesh to Ethiopia, which she added, “is just not sustainable either.”

Revisiting value

Now companies should be looking at final value, whether that’s profit or impact value within the community.

“We got to start readdressing and thinking that capital is not just the one measure,” Simon said.

The pandemic may light the fire to fuel the change for companies and how they value both themselves and the product they put out into the world. Likewise, the cracks COVID-19 has exposed in society and the line it has drawn between what’s essential versus discretionary will also change consumers.

“The consumer is thinking and that’s what matters…now we don’t want to buy and invest the way we did before, which will change the entire pattern of creation itself,” Himatsingka said. “If I don’t buy bread from my local baker, he’s not baking anymore.”

Fashion’s sustainability depends heavily on both consumer consciousness and brands better wielding the influence they have over consumption.

“My hope is that the default will be consuming responsibly, and that will require a great amount of transparency on the behalf of brands that will choose to sell in that space—and it won’t be niche brands,” Simon said. “Hopefully that will become the mainstream and we will need to be driving quality so that garments can last. And we’ll need to be injecting traceability and transparency through the whole supply chain.”

Where Fashion3, which operates brands including Pimkie, Jules and Orsay, began with an aim of democratizing fast fashion, it has now shifted its focus to democratizing sustainable fashion, Simon said.

“Eventually our vision is to try and move to positive impact fashion, so how we can reverse some of the damage we’ve done?” she said. “It’s a long road and there’ll be plenty of challenges along the way, but I think the end goal is clear for all of us. It depends on the pace we chose to take and I think together if we can find solutions and make those a new reality, we’ll start to really affect change.”

What won’t work is companies boarding the train for the sake of ticking that ‘sustainability box,’ and trying to make their efforts appear similar to those of leading eco-friendly brands. Much like Zara’s supply chain model that rivals have failed to mimic, sustainability isn’t something that can be parroted or called on for one-off capsule collections.

“Sustainability is a culture,” Himatsingka said. “It is not a concept or a product or a tag. It is a culture that one needs to imbibe holistically. Every aspect of the supply chain contributes to the sustainability.”

The glut of industry initiatives that some brands sign and others don’t has been the modus operandi in fashion’s sustainability story, but the pandemic may push the real paradigm shift, Simon said.

“If we think about the way in which it used to be just normal to smoke and then when smoking was banned in restaurants,” she said, “we’ll look back and say, ‘how could we have ever thought it was an acceptable way to operate?’”