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While Fashion Struggles for Survival, Will Sustainability Pledges Stick?

Sustainability can be a hard sell even in the best of times.

With brands and retailers scrambling to keep their bottom lines from cratering amid shuttered storefronts and plunging consumer spending, however, the financial pain inflicted by COVID-19 could complicate hard-fought efforts to keep the fashion industry’s massive environmental footprint in check, if not derail them entirely.

To be sure, the climate of economic uncertainty has left many businesses questioning their next steps. Apparel giants such as Gap Inc., Inditex and Kering declined to comment if the fallout from the coronavirus will roil sustainability commitments as a result of shifting priorities. Purpose-led Patagonia said that it didn’t have anything to share, other than the fact that it will continue to be guided by its values. (It’s continuing to trial the removal of plastic polybags from its clothing, however.) Allbirds, which slapped a “carbon tax” on itself and champions eco-friendlier materials such as Tencel and sugarcane foam, also demurred when reached for comment, though its new sustainable performance sneaker speaks to the San Francisco brand’s ongoing efforts to make planet-protecting footwear.

Even H&M Group, which previously trumpeted goals such as employing only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and embracing “climate positivity” across its entire supply chain by 2040, was uncharacteristically circumspect.

“Regarding how this might affect our sustainability goals, it is hard to make any forecasts in this extraordinary situation,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

There’s little doubt that the pandemic has dealt the sector a body blow. In the United States alone, clothing and footwear sales could tumble by as much as $19.4 billion, according to research agency GlobalData Retail. A frenzy of cost cutting in the face of throttled cash flows has resulted in sweeping furloughs and layoffs, diminished capital expenditures and deferred or suspended rent payments. Could sustainability be next on the chopping block?

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The short answer: It’s complicated.

“Every day brands, retailers, and manufacturers continue uncovering and understanding the depth of impacts on their businesses as a result of COVID-19,” said Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a San Francisco-based industry group whose members include marquee names such as C&A, H&M, Levi Strauss and Target. “Things are evolving quickly, and it’s hard to say where we’ll be in one week or even six months from now.”

The timing of the pandemic certainly couldn’t be more inopportune, considering how many brands have latched onto 2020 as a deadline for their first tranche of sustainability commitments. Some were floundering even before COVID-19 reared its head. The Global Fashion Agenda reported last June, for example, that the 90 signatories of its 2020 Commitment have made just 21 percent progress toward goals meant to manifest a more circular fashion economy.

The sustainability think tank, which organizes the Copenhagen Fashion Summit every June, is currently polling retailers such as Adidas, Asos, Bestseller H&M, Inditex, PVH Corp. and VF Corp. to suss out if the coronavirus outbreak will throw them further off course.

“So far, we have only heard from a handful of them about difficulties reaching specific targets; for instance, in-person circular design training activities have been put on a pause due to the directions regarding social distancing,” said Jonas Eder-Hansen, public affairs director at Global Fashion Agenda. “We will know much more after the deadline for survey responses.”

Smaller, nimbler companies with fewer pressure points, too, are under duress, and the pandemic is proving a test of resolve for brands that incorporate sustainability as part of their core messaging and DNA.

Eileen Fisher has wrapped up its 2020 commitments ahead of schedule, but its new set of goals—dubbed Horizon 2030—to reduce carbon emissions, promote renewable energy and create traceable, regenerative supply chains, may require a rejiggered timeline to manage specific targets.

“We must first be responsible to the impact this crisis is having on our business,” said Amy Hall, vice president of Eileen Fisher. “Though we may have unexpected hurdles for the foreseeable future, our commitment to sustainability and human rights remains intact as a pillar of the company.”

Similarly, New Zealand’s Maggie Marilyn, whose consciously crafted looks have won favor with the likes of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, says timing may be an issue for her eponymous brand, though she remains otherwise steadfast in her mission.

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt the fashion industry a body blow. Could sustainability efforts and initiatives be on the chopping block?
Meghan Markle wears sustainable New Zealand-based brand Maggie Marilyn in 2018. The Duchess of Sussex has made a habit of patronizing conscious labels, from Everlane to Veja. Shutterstock

“Certain things [are] being pushed out slightly,” she said. “For example, we were supposed to audit our factories in March; however, due to our borders being closed, the auditing company from Australia is not able to resume our audit until the end of the year.”

The outbreak has presented It Girl fave Reformation, with “unprecedented challenges,” including store closures and plummeting e-commerce sales, which have “dramatically impacted” the budgets it had earmarked for eco-friendly initiatives this quarter, admitted Kathleen Talbot, its chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations.

“Our first quarter hasn’t gone to plan, and we have had to put some programs on hold,” Talbot told Sourcing Journal. “But times like these test us, and make us decide what kind of leaders we are. So we’ve done our best to put our people first, and protect as many jobs as possible for as long as possible.”

Everlane, the San Francisco maker of elevated basics, says it will press on with its commitments, which include nixing virgin plastic by 2021 and employing only certified-organic cotton in cotton products by 2023.

“While we are trying to navigate through the more immediate challenges facing the supply chain like ensuring the health and safety of our factories and warehouse, addressing shipping delays and adjusting production orders, building an environmentally responsible supply chain will always be a top priority for us,” said Kimberley Smith, Everlane’s chief supply chain officer. “If anything, the pandemic has shown how interconnected the global supply chain is and the need to create a better planet for the future.”

Indeed, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped brands from making fresh commitments, either—or at least not backpedaling on plans made pre-pandemic.

Though the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 was a muted affair, denim firm Lee took the opportunity to launch a “global sustainability platform” that will fuel innovations for eco-friendly apparel development and production by 2025. The same week, Michael Kors’ Capri Holdings touted its plan to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2024, and Canada Goose vowed to zero out its Scope 1 and 2 emissions through “aggressive and tangible action plans” by 2025. Nordstrom, despite the fiscal sting of COVID-19, pledged to halve its single-use plastic consumption, use sustainably sourced polyester, cotton and cellulosic fibers in 50 percent of Nordstrom Made products, extend the life of 250 tons of clothing and earmark $1 million for textile-recycling innovations in order to “deepen its efforts to minimize its environmental impact” by 2025.

There are a couple of reasons these rollouts are still happening, says Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. While most businesses may be focusing their attention on surviving the pandemic, significant investments in sustainability measures over the past few years have embedded the concept into many business strategies. Sustainability isn’t a matter of “doing the right thing,” he said. In certain cases—energy efficiency, say, or socially responsible procurement—sustainability can also make businesses leaner, more efficient and, yes, more profitable.

“This win-win situation, where policies help the business financially and the environment, will become even more important in the wake of coronavirus,” Sanders said.

Consumer opinion still matters, even if consumers are locked into fight-or-flight mode, he said. People still, by and large, hold positive views about sustainable practices, and they won’t simply cast off their principles because a crisis has come along.

“This means there is still strong underlying demand for firms acting in a sustainable way,” Sanders said. “There is also a case to be made that many will emerge from this with a much greater sense of global consciousness…and how things are interconnected. That could actually make sustainability much more important over the longer term.”

SAC’s Razvi agrees. If brands are tabling sustainability, she believes it will only be for the interim. Climate change isn’t going away, and neither will consumer desire for greater accountability from the companies they support.

“We anticipate that consumers are going to seek transparency more than ever before, and the companies that stick to and further integrate sustainability values—the values shared by the SAC—will emerge stronger after the crisis,” she said.

In other words, for retailers hoping to regain their footing when the dust settles, sustainability can be a point of differentiation when every cash-strapped store is clamoring to win back hearts and wallets.

For Russ Hopcus, president of Prana, which specializes in planet-pandering travel attire and activewear, the slowdown from the pandemic is an opportunity for both businesses and consumers to pause and take stock of what matters to them.

“We believe this pandemic will actually cause consumers to value our sustainability efforts more than ever before, which is why we are not only continuing our sustainability strategy, but taking this time to reassess and identify further opportunities for growth, for greater efficiencies with less impact, and for continued, fundamental, positive change in the apparel industry,” Hopcus said.

Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of forest-conservation nonprofit Canopy, which helps apparel brands clean up their viscose supply chain, pictures the industry at a crossroads, and the choices it makes now will be especially critical for the future.

All of Canopy’s brand partners, which include Burberry, Esprit, H&M, Inditex and Stella McCartney, she noted, remain committed to not sourcing viscose from ancient and endangered forests. Sometimes things have to move forward, even during impossible periods of history, she said, simply because they have to.

“It is vitally important that as we work to deal with this disaster, we don’t exacerbate another, the climate and biodiversity crisis,” she said. “I’m finding that all of our brand partners understand that as we emerge from this pandemic, we need to prioritize sustainable and just solutions to reset and rebuild both the economy and supply chains to ensure a climate-safe future for all of us.”

With just a few years left to limit temperature increases to a further 1.5 degrees Celsius and avert the worst impacts of a climate catastrophe, this isn’t a time to stick our heads in the sand, added Maggie Marilyn.

“I believe now is a time to be brave; we are not going into hibernation we are going to keep pushing forward, “ she said. “Building a sustainable and regenerative brand is our northern star and guiding light. Without this mission we would be driving in the dark.”