Federal and local authorities eager to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus’ skyrocketing impact have issued widespread stay-at-home orders and mandatory shutdowns for non-essential businesses over the past month. While the practice has undoubtedly saved lives, it’s also left the country’s retail community with drastically fewer customers.
The downtime has left brands with plenty of time on their hands to contemplate sales strategies for the future, but present anxieties about the economy have retailers resorting to deep discounts to recoup any shred of spring season profits.
The topic of environmental stewardship, which had become the loudest refrain among fashion industry leaders and their supply chain partners over the past year, has quieted to a whisper. Amid all the madness, has sustainability taken a backseat to survival?
According to Los Angeles sustainable stalwart Reformation, the answer is—or should be—no. Brands can stay true to their sustainable commitments during the pandemic, said chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations Kathleen Talbot, though it’s tempting to prioritize the bottom line over everything else.
It’s essential that brands not lose sight of their long term goals, she said, even while devoting resources to immediate survival. “There is also an opportunity to take stock of what your business can be doing better or differently,” she said.
While it may not be the time to tackle massive sustainability overhauls, brands should consider modest measures for making an impact.
“Being more sustainable doesn’t have to cost more—using less material and focusing on products that generate less waste can lead to savings over time,” she said, noting that the pandemic has also posed new challenges for brands, including how to responsibly handle order cancellations or deferments, and shifting inventory.
“How brands respond now really tests their underlying values and commitments to sustainable operations,” she said. “I strongly believe the brands that prioritize people and the planet even during these hard decisions will have a stronger brand position when this is behind us.”
Talbot argued that COVID-19 has actually increased consumer awareness of the global impact of fashion—and the industry needs to keep pace.
“There have been more conversations about the culture of waste it fosters, which stands in contrast to the simplified lifestyles most of us are leading right now,” she said. With so much time to reflect and nowhere to go, shoppers are apt to think more deeply about the items they do decide to purchase.
“We’ve already seen consumers demand better, more ethical operations, especially as it pertains to the way workers are treated, and that will only increase over time,” Talbot said. “As an industry, we need to continue to evolve with that in mind.”
In some ways, this lull presents the perfect moment to rethink supply chains.
“With so much of the industry in upheaval, there is a natural pause to reimagine operations,” she said. Some strategies—like running shorter production seasons or designing using fabrics already on hand—can mitigate risks to business while also improving environmental outcomes. Talbot touted both approaches as keys to Reformation’s success.
The hiatus could encourage brands to adopt these and other more sustainable business models that “challenge fashion’s status quo,” addressing some of the industry’s longstanding pitfalls, like a “profusion of inventory waste” as well as worker injustices.
“The pandemic has also highlighted the ways we are all connected,” Talbot said. A SoCal staple, Reformation has been an under-the-radar stakeholder in the City of Los Angeles’ sustainable business initiatives over the years.
Last month, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a partnership with the brand, called L.A. Protects, that would mobilize other apparel brands and manufacturers throughout the region in the creation of personal protective equipment, like face masks, to protect essential workers from exposure to COVID-19.
“With our facilities closed under the Safer at Home order, pivoting to making non-medical masks and supporting other producers to join us felt like a small but impactful way to respond to the crisis,” Talbot said.
For Reformation, weathering the current storm means keeping commitments to its team, community partners, and sustainability goals, she added. “Now is the time to invest in our shared future.”