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Fashion’s Worst List: Moments Best Left in the Rearview Mirror

As 2020 comes to its long-awaited close, many are raring to ring in a new year—and hoping that 2021 comes with far fewer heartaches and headaches.

The fashion industry has always been reliant on creativity and fresh perspectives, and brands and retailers that refused to rise and meet the year’s manifold challenges with inventive, ethical and sustainable solutions may soon realize that they’ve committed the ultimate fashion faux pas.

Supply chains in flames

As the Covid crisis ramped up this spring, many panicked brands hung their partners out to dry, backing out of contracts and refusing payment on already in-process orders.

Topshop owner Arcadia Group, Gap Inc., Urban Outfitters, H&M Group, Primark, Nike, Walmart subsidiary Asda, and C&A are just some of the firms that canceled orders and suspended payments in the early days of the pandemic, imperiling their overseas partners’ businesses and their workers’ livelihoods. What’s more, manufacturers were left to foot the bill for upstream materials suppliers as brands washed their hands of responsibility.

While backlash ultimately prompted some brands to pay—at least in part—for the orders they’d placed months before, the damage to these working relationships may prove tough to repair. Some brands have ultimately profited amid the chaos, shining a glaring light on the damage done to its suppliers in previous months. Others, like Arcadia Group, have fallen into frenzied administration negotiations, making paying back suppliers an unlikely priority.

In developing nations like Bangladesh, where the apparel sector accounts for more than 80 percent of total export earnings, the impacts have been particularly devastating. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated that the country would see an “irrecoverable loss” of $5 billion by the end of 2020.

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According to Mostafiz Uddin, managing director of Bangladeshi garment factory Denim Expert Ltd., trust between brands and suppliers has been all but lost. Uddin’s factories saw a high volume of cancelations on both finished and unfinished goods, and he was left footing the bill for the raw materials that the factory purchased itself.

“During this pandemic, we have realized that partnerships are a marketing tool for brands and retailers,” he said at the virtual Sourcing Journal Summit in October. “And we talk a lot about partnerships, but I don’t see one single example of a true partnership.”

“When the pandemic started, they canceled all of their orders just by sending a letter—that’s all,” he added. “Millions and millions of dollars, raw materials, finished goods, unfinished goods—all just [canceled] in a simple email. Obviously, our relationship is totally destroyed, the trust is broken, and it will take a lot of time to rebuild this relationship.”

Antiviral allegations

Activewear may have been a winner in 2020, but one women’s performance apparel brand is under fire for claims it made about its garments’ effectiveness in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Australia-based Lorna Jane is being sued by the country’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for marketing a line of products dubbed LJ Shield as antiviral, according to a report from News Corp. Australia.

Lorna Jane marketed its LJ Shield products as effective against the spread of the coronavirus.

Last week, the agency filed a lawsuit alleging that brand made false claims that its products—which Lorna Jane sprays with a non-toxic, water-based anti-bacterial mist—protect wearers against Covid-19. According to the ACCC’s filing, the LJ Shield products did not undergo testing to determine if they could stop the spread of the virus. The agency also alleged that CEO Lorna Jane, aware that the claims were unfounded, continuously promoted the garments’ efficacy on social media.

In July, Australia’s Therapeutic Good Administration—an equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S.—issued three infringement notices against the company, totaling about $40,000, due to the brand’s failure to register the products prior to making health claims.

Following that sanction, the LJ Shield pieces, which included bra tops and leggings, were removed from the site, along with any mention of antiviral properties. However, products still bore hang-tags touting the claims as late as November, the ACCC alleged.

The agency’s commissioner, Sarah Court, said the claims were not backed by scientific evidence and preyed on Australians’ mounting anxieties about another rash of infections heading into the fall months.

“We allege that the statements made by Lorna Jane gave the impression that the Covid-19 claims were based on scientific or technological evidence when this was not the case,” Court said in a statement obtained by News Corp. “It is particularly concerning that allegedly misleading claims that Lorna Jane’s LJ Shield Activewear could eliminate the spread of Covid-19 were made at a time when there was fear about a second wave emerging in Australia, especially in Victoria, and all Australians were concerned about being exposed to the virus.”

Currently, a landing page for Lorna Jane’s LJ Shield technology states that it “works on contact to reduce bacteria surviving on your garment,” and claims that “International testing facility Intertek, who conduct total quality assurance testing, inspecting and certification services proved a 99 percent reduction of bacteria on the fabric tested that used this technology.” The website makes no mention of antiviral properties, and does not speak to the contents of the coating. Lorna Jane did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week, another Australian company debuted a bona fide coronavirus breakthrough, though. Materials science and technology startup Xefco and Swiss textile innovator HeiQ launched their long-awaited XViroblock technology—a thin film copper surface treatment that has been proven, in tests conducted by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, to exhibit significant virus-busting properties against SARS-CoV-2, the architect of 2020’s Covid nightmares.

But Italian denim label Diesel also took heat earlier this year for its antiviral claims, which experts panned as a “marketing ploy.”

Undercover racism

While brands work hard to project an image of inclusivity to shoppers, few fashion firms are squeaky clean behind the scenes. Amid nationwide upheaval following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in May, shoppers began to realize that they could vote for equality with their wallets—and punish companies for their misdeeds by withholding their support.

Few companies seem to have had more trouble in this department than tech titan Amazon and Swedish fast-fashion firm H&M Group.

In June, the Seattle-based online marketplace was forced to pull a listing from one of its third-party sellers’ accounts for a children’s T-shirt that featured an image of Floyd dying at the hands of police-officer-turned-murder-suspect Derek Chauvin. Just two months later, Black British Labour Party politician David Lammy discovered a listing for a brogue dress shoe from another third-party seller that used the n-word in its description.

While Amazon acted quickly to pull both products from its site shortly after receiving complaints, these incidents raise questions about its ability to exert control over its sprawling platform of millions of sellers and listings.

H&M Group came under fire for its own n-word nightmare over the summer as well. A line sheet from the company’s & Other Stories brand, which featured renderings of forthcoming products and new releases, was internally circulated showing a hat that bore the offensive slur as part of its product name.

The company decried the design team’s action as “totally unacceptable,” calling it a serious breach of company policy, and suspended the responsible individuals. H&M Group also committed to mandating bias training across its brands and their thousands of employees, with promises to release more plans to promote diversity and inclusion by the end of 2021.

That timeline might have already proven too long, however. Earlier this month, Sweden’s Equality Ombudsman (DO), which investigates instances of discrimination, launched a probe into H&M Group after one of the country’s news outlets released a video of one of their white female journalists returning items at one of H&M’s stores without a receipt. While she was able to do so without incident, the video also captured H&M employees refusing a woman of foreign descent who also attempted to return items without proof of purchase.

“The purpose of the inspection is to clarify whether there has been a violation of the prohibition of discrimination for which the company is responsible,” the DO told Reuters in early December. While the DO cannot impose sanctions on H&M, it is able to bring a court case based on its findings in the new year.

H&M Group and Amazon aren’t the only brands to walk away from 2020 with egg on their faces. Athletic wear leaders Adidas and Nike both attempted to wade into the discussion of race, throwing support behind the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer, only to be dressed down by some shoppers and employees who claimed they could do more—both internally and externally—to promote equality.

Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO of It-Girl label Reformation, quickly exited the company after allegations of discriminatory behavior began making the rounds in June. Aflalo addressed the allegations in an Instagram post beginning, “I’ve failed.”

“When former team members make accusations that I ignored them in the past, I know that this is true. I am so sad and regretful for it. This is inexcusable in itself, but when I hear Black colleagues who felt that I avoided them because of the color of their skin, I burn inside thinking about the sadness I inflicted,” she wrote. “Please know that for me this was not about the color of your skin, it’s about my shortcomings as a person.”

Mink madness and more

While the human race fared badly this year, animals will not emerge from 2020 unscathed, either.

Denmark’s mink population was hit especially hard this winter, when Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen ordered the culling of 17 million animals being farmed for the fur trade due to fears that a mutated form of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was jumping from animals to humans.

While the Danish government ultimately declined to mandate the massacre, instead softening its stance to a mere recommendation to farmers that they cull their mink, the New York Times reported in late December that the country’s mink population had been totally eradicated on the order.

In this file photo dated Friday Nov. 6, 2020, mink look out from a pen at a farm near Naestved, Denmark.
In this file photo dated Nov. 6, 2020, mink look out from a pen at a farm near Naestved, Denmark. Mads Claus Rasmussen / Associated Press

Prime Minister Frederiksen called the government’s rushed intervention “a regrettable mistake,” as members of Denmark’s largest opposition party, Venstre, questioned whether the a mink cull was scientifically justified. According to the Times, mink are the only animals known to have contracted and died from the virus—and they are also the only species known to have caught it from humans and passed it back.

Kare Molbak, leader of the government-run State Serum Institute, called the new strain of the disease a “game changer” for mink farmers, and suggested that the industry represents “far too high a national health risk” to continue in Denmark.

Animal rights activists at PETA are continuing to press for the end of the fur trade—and the use of exotic skins, more broadly—by taking on the fashion industry’s luxury leaders.

In early December, the group took issue with statements from Louis Vuitton CEO and chairman Michael Burke after the executive claimed, “with 100 percent hand on heart,” that the animals the label uses to make its high-end accessories are “humanely farmed.” In an open letter, PETA’s vice president and deputy general counsel for animal law, Jared Goodman, pointed to an investigation led by an affiliate organization that exposed animal abuse in the company’s exotic skins pipeline.

LVMH owns a majority stake in Vietnam’s Heng Long crocodile leather tannery, which admitted to sourcing skins from a local crocodile farm that PETA’s affiliate claimed violated and mistreated its animals. PETA also probed one of Louis Vuitton’s suppliers of ostrich leather, and found that the birds were being brutally executed and manhandled.

PETA’s VP urged Burke to cease making claims about the company’s ethics regarding its fur and skins supply chain, and implored Louis Vuitton to make like other luxury players—including Chanel, Vivienne Westwood and Diane von Furstenberg—and remove exotic skins from its offerings entirely. LVMH did not respond to requests for comment.

While PETA may have planted itself firmly in the pro-animal camp, the group’s stance on environmental protection seems to be less grounded.

Earlier this month, the group debuted a collection of faux-fur bomber jackets in collaboration with Los Angeles designer Matt Sarafa, a favorite of Gen Z celebrities and former contestant on “Project Runway: Junior.”

While the line eschews animal fur, it makes use instead of non-renewable polymers, or plastics, which don’t biodregrade. What’s more, faux fur contributes to microplastic shedding, an issue that impacts the world’s waterways and wildlife. Bio-based replacements for faux fur are beginning to hit the market, but haven’t yet been widely adopted.

PETA manager Laura Sheilds pointed to the noted environmental impacts of tanneries and farms, and insisted that PETA and Sarafa’s collaborative products are “10 times less harmful to the environment than fur from a dead animal.”