The global spread of COVID-19, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, has affected all aspects of society, from our everyday lives to the international operations of major companies in various trades, including the fashion industry. This shutting down of modern society as we know it has forced us to reconcile with and reflect on the extent of the impacts our consumerism lifestyles have had on our communities and environment. The quarantine that has been enforced not only on our physical selves but our tendencies for material consumption is most heavily felt in our economic and cultural spheres, and even when society returns to “normal”, things will never be the same.
Prior to the spread of the disease that has led to a rapid halt of the global fashion business, the industry was producing well over 100 billion items of clothing, which is an unquestionable excess of the needs of a worldwide population of 7.8 billion people. Fast fashion, true to its name, was only speeding up, with clothing consumption projected to only rise by 63% by 2030, according to the Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group in 2017. However, with the sudden halting of manufacturing orders and closure of supply chains, these projections may no longer remain accurate.
Even if major fashion companies had made efforts to transition away from the vicious cycle of fast fashion and unsustainable operational processes, there was no feasible way that the impacts of these efforts would produce a significant dent in the aforementioned statistical trajectories. The unprecedented interruption of this industry, whose profits seemed to grow in direct relation to the amount of clothing that was produced, has propelled us into uncharted territory, and the future of fashion lies in the hands of the companies and how they choose to approach their responsibilities to their consumers and to the world.
Thus far, the response of fashion companies has promised a new sense of connectedness and empathy, with well-known brands like Prada and Zara using their production lines to manufacture masks and medical gowns, and the luxury conglomerate LVMH producing hand sanitizers. These companies are helping to lead the charge towards what can potentially be a shift in the fashion environment, one that is more attuned to the needs of both society and the environment, and finding ways to connect these two needs rather than treating them as mutually exclusive. Rather than ignoring the problem and placing economic gains as a priority, fashion brands must use this time to think about how we can all reframe the industry to be environmentally conscious and considerate of people’s health.
An important part of this discussion is the impact that the spread of the novel coronavirus has had on the health and wellbeing of the underpaid, overworked garment workers of the fashion industry who are not afforded any means of financial support from the companies. Without any sick pay, wages, or severance pay, these individuals, who are almost always from developing, poor economies, are the ones who are paying the biggest price during this global pandemic.
This fragile supply chain, which is held together by a fraying, tension-filled string, is now close to its breaking point due to the disruptions from the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of the significant fashion retailers that are closing their stores have canceled their orders, many of which were already completed, leaving these already vulnerable workers without pay. The governments of these workers do not have resources in place to help protect these garment workers, and factory owners are not contesting the actions of the retailers in order to protect their future business transactions.
During this time of self-isolation and halted production, businesses must reflect on and correct their previous paths of uncontrolled overproduction, labor degradement, and product waste. Consumers must also take on the crucial role of holding the industry accountable and ensuring that companies are fixing this unjust imbalance of power between workers and executives.
Consumers can also use this time to take action and restructure not only their choices but their lifestyles to prioritize sustainability. Conduct research and investigate the initiatives companies are undertaking in response to the spread of COVID-19, and how they are still taking sustainability into consideration. Support local businesses that are based around the needs and desires of your communities. As we get back on our feet, although this timeline does not yet present a concrete date, the most consequential challenge for the fashion industry will be finding a balance between recovering economically by finding new ways to invest in their productions while continuing the progress they had already made towards sustainability.
The screeching of the brakes on the global fashion business has served as a wakeup call for companies and consumers alike. We are at a pivotal moment in the fashion industry where our actions right now can drastically alter the future of fashion, and we have the opportunity to reevaluate our priorities, specifically in regards to the environment and the economy. We must directly face and accept the fact that our resources are not infinite, and the only way we can sustain the fashion industry is to put our planet first. We have turned to a new page in fashion history, and we have a duty to ourselves and future generations to be on the right side of this resketched history.