The coronavirus pandemic has thrown much of the world into chaos, with many sectors facing fundamental and irreversible change. The future success, or failure, of a business is now dependent on how each responds to the crisis as a whole and adapts to behavioural shifts in clientele.
One industry has been noticeably impacted - and that’s fashion. The fashion industry was forced to shift its focus to a ‘locked-down’ market as soon as the crisis began, switching all sales from in-store to online at the drop of a hat. Brands like New Look, ASOS, and Boohoo started to push leisurewear and pyjamas at the front of their websites, taking advantage of those of us lounging around on the sofa all day. Where you would normally find summer dresses, chunky heels and bikinis ahead of the summer holiday period, you’ll now see slippers, tracksuit bottoms, and chunky knitwear.
Whether we’ll ever leave comfortable clothes behind, “after months of elasticated waistbands,” remains to be seen, writes journalist Alyx Gorman in The Guardian.
For fast fashion brand Boohoo.com, the pandemic has started to pay off. The company’s share price dipped along with the rest of the stock market post-lockdown, but it’s one of the only FTSE companies to have done well since. Boohoo hasn't just recovered - it’s now in a better position than it was in throughout the previous fiscal year. Boohoo’s billionaire owner Mahmud Kamani is now believed to be eyeing up failing businesses, much like when the company acquired other struggling high street brands like Karen Millen and Coast last year.
Although Boohoo and its subsidiaries PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal are mostly synonymous with cheap dresses for a night out, the brand has managed to capitalise on cosy clothing when its customers need comfort above all else.
If fast fashion starts to boom during this time, this is a big problem for the planet. Fearing exactly this, last month experts called for a total abandonment of fast fashion to prevent an environmental disaster.
But it’s not as straightforward as saying that fast fashion has profited off the pandemic. For instance, Boohoo’s de facto high street equivalent, Primark, doesn’t have an online presence. According to Retail Gazette, Primark have £1.5 billion worth of clothes sat in stockpile, with no ability to sell anything, in what has been dubbed an 'inventory crisis.'
Ecommerce expert Luke Carthy calculated that in order for Primark to shift this enormous amount of stock to customers, the (socially-distanced) queue would have to wrap around the globe twice. Carthy based the figures off an average consumer spend of £50 in store, concluding that this would mean 30 million customers would be needed to clear the stock.
“Primark may be forced to increase its prices,” explains Carthy, “a sobering problem when you consider that a core USP of the brand is ‘cheap fashion’.”
Is our obsession with fast fashion dying out?
As the novelty of lockdown wears off, however, it may be that our love affair with fast fashion starts to wane too. Although brands like Boohoo have done well as we turn to athleisure wear and sweatpants to chill at home, with fewer opportunities to leave the house (for work or socialising) we may well find ourselves less inclined than ever to spend money on new clothes.
“The biggest shifts in fashion have historically not come from runway trends, but followed events such as wars that disrupt society on a huge scale,” fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell told Quartz. After the 2008 recession, shoppers’ interest in logo-heavy products and items which flaunted wealth dimmed significantly. With a similar global recession seemingly inevitable now, a move towards minimalism in fashion is almost a certainty.
Marc Bain argues exactly that in Quartz, concluding that “shoppers buying less clothing is practically guaranteed, unless it’s a pair of sweatpants.” So while there may have been a short-term boost to online fast fashion retailers, in the longer-term it looks as though consumers are likely to be buying less.
Transparency has never been more important
Ethical casualwear brand and millennial-favourite Lucy & Yak has been vocal about sustainability in fashion since its inception in 2017. The founders, Chris Renwick and Lucy Greenwood, started working with small factories in India to produce high quality dungarees, before branching out into other products.
The brand has a strong social media following, where the founders talk about their relationship with the industry, the decisions they make on the future of the company, and how they work with Ismail - the factory owner they started the company with.
Throughout the pandemic, Lucy & Yak has been transparent with the safety measures it has taken - even closing its factories for the welfare of its workers. Recently Renwick and Greenwood launched a fundraising campaign to help raise money for people and families struggling in the communities local to their Indian factories. In just 48 hours their modest goal of £500 reached £5,000, enough to support hundreds of families in the region.
While Lucy & Yak has undoubtedly seen their supply chain altered and sales affected, the loyalty of the brand’s customers is evident from the success of their fundraising.
So could it be that companies like Lucy & Yak are the ones who will be rewarded for their ethical business practice and sustainable manufacturing processes, once the pandemic is over?
Where can we find the best ethical brands?
It can be a whirlwind process trying to find an ethical brand that isn’t just greenwashing. Sure there are obvious companies like Lucy & Yak who are famed for their approach to sustainability, but transparency and ethics in companies can be hard to find.
That’s where ethical fashion search engines can come in handy. Platforms like Ethical Made Easy, Staiy or Project Cece help filter brands so you can be sure you are supporting a company committed to helping the environment.
Project Cece allows you to filter your search based on the values you find most important - for example whether a product is: FairTrade, vegan, locally-produced, or raises money for a good cause.
The pandemic has also shown us how fragile our world can be when it comes to a universal crisis, explains Project Cece co-founder Noor Veenhoven, “which is why we should do everything in our power to prevent another crisis from happening.
“With the worst of the coronavirus hopefully behind us, we need to take a critical look at the fashion industry. This crisis has shown us more than ever how many people in the fashion industry are mistreated, and that the big fast fashion brands show no mercy when it comes to taking money out of the hands of those that need it the most.”
Increasing numbers of major brands are moving towards net carbon neutrality, with Gucci announcing its intention to be carbon neutral last September and Burberry running its first carbon neutral fashion show this year. Earlier this week fashion media giant Condé Nast announced its move to carbon neutrality - showing the appetite for environmentalism within the fashion world is growing exponentially.
The fashion industry is one of the most significant polluters in the world, responsible for 10 per cent of carbon emissions and consuming around 100 million tonnes of oil each year. NeoMam Studios highlights that the average consumer throws away 60 per cent of new clothes in the same year they were bought. By 2050, at our current rate, we will have thrown away enough clothing to fill the Great Wall of China twice over.
But if we move further away from fast fashion in a post-pandemic world, towards meaningful sustainability and minimalism, we could perhaps begin to undo the damage caused to our planet by our clothes.