Director of the BA (Hons) Fashion Communication programme, Harriet Posner specialises in marketing and branding for fashion. Harriet has also run a consultancy, specialising in buying, market research, branding and marketing. Following the COVID-19 crisis, she discusses the relationship between fashion and sustainability, searching for common threads that will bring impactful change in a post-pandemic world.
Re-evaluating the state of the industry
The current COVID-19 crisis has been a catalyst for the righting of wrongs. Health workers, bin men and shop staff are closer to our hearts than they have ever been and we want to see them properly looked after once this has finished (whatever that might mean). The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have gathered significant momentum as we all feel an urge to make the post-pandemic world a better place. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have not gone away either as we witnessed bluer skies, more breathable air and louder birdsong in lockdown than we had for many years and we want to keep them all. Fashion was already under pressure to reform. The ultimate disposability of fast fashion, the headlong rush to produce six collections a year with all the consumption that entails and the appalling working conditions in far-flung factories were all already in society’s sights. The problem is that fashion is one of the hardest industries to make green in any meaningful way.
The changes for catwalk collections post-pandemic
We know it’s not sustainable to just keep pumping out more product and in recent months we have seen a number of brands reverting to the production of fewer collections. Some designers have moved to trans-seasonal, non-seasonal and even gender-neutral products with the desire to convince the public that they can buy quality and it will last. Gucci has announced it will do only two shows per year with only seasonless clothes. Assuming they’re only worn once wedding dresses must be potentially the least sustainable garments there are. Bridal wear giant Pronovias has recently revealed two new ranges, the first described as ‘360º Eco‘ and marketed as sustainable in every practicable way and the second, “eco-friendly,” guaranteeing the majority of materials used are eco-certified”
Many people (myself included) no longer have summer and winter wardrobes, just clothes we wear – sometimes with a jumper and sometimes without. I have a pair of palazzo pants I’ve been wearing for thirty years; so long as I can still get into them, I see no reason to buy more. Making clothes that last is a powerful way to consume less but this transition is proving difficult for some in the fashion industry.
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Altering the fashion industry’s seasonal production
Seasonality is big news, particularly facing criticism throughout the pandemic. The idea that in July the shops are full of winter outfits and not a bikini in sight is not in keeping with the get it the next day ethos of the age. The big advantage from the industry’s viewpoint is this will significantly reduce the dreaded inventory of last season’s stock taking up warehouse space. See Now, Buy Now as pioneered by Burberry also means shorter lead times and quicker returns on collections as well as being more sustainable. The air miles of the participants at global fashion shows as they go from one catwalk show to another are also being reduced, partly because of cancellations during the pandemic but also due to the return to one or two shows per year and the combining of men’s and women’s shows (why did we ever think keeping them separate was such a good idea anyway?).
Around the world clever committed people are interrogating the way fashion is produced, questioning the use of materials. In the UK Elvis and Kresse craft luxury accessories from recycled fire hoses, and bravo to the wonderful fashion designer Alice Potts who creates her accessories from home grown bio-plastic, and is breaking boundaries by making jewellery from human sweat crystals. For others, being sustainable means buying vintage, and all these things are good but the overall approach is too scatter-gun when looking after the planet needs to be central to everything, not just tinkering on the margins.
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Considering ethical employment practices for the future
Then there is the human element. According to the World Bank about one person in eight who works for a living around the world does so in garment manufacturing. That’s about 430 million people out of a global workforce of 3.5 billion. That represents a lot of mouths to feed. The variation in the industry’s employment practices is legendary although some of the preconceptions around who the good guys are, are questionable. I recently spoke to a terribly distressed supplier for a well-known chain of High Street chemists. She had negotiated a price to supply her products in the tens of thousands but COVID had forced the buyer to reduce their order and they were still demanding the same unit price. Other firms have simply stopped paying their suppliers altogether.
There has been some recovery in footfall of late although the industry has, as ever, come up with ingenious ideas to assimilate to current circumstances. The cumbersomely named Squadded Shopping Party is an online platform where Gen Z (and others of like mind) deprived of the opportunity to gather in shopping centres and buy clothes together can now do so online – in a social group – ingenious, but while business may benefit, what will this mean for the planet when consumption levels rise again? What is the trade-off between more clothes back in our wardrobes vs. less personal travel to the high street?
How brands are balancing purpose and profit throughout the pandemic
Accreditation and recognition for those brands that take action is key, but this does not always filter down to communications with the desired audience. One of the most notable initiatives is B Corps. Certified B Corporations are businesses that aim to balance purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and their environment. The US fashion brand, Eileen Fischer and the well-known Patagonia are both certified, but smaller businesses can also apply – Elvis and Kresse already mentioned for their accessories from reclaimed fire hoses have just received B Corps status. 50% of their profits from that range go towards The Fire Fighters’ Charity in the UK. These types of initiatives are the way forward, but more needs to be done to spread the word so everyone knows what is going on, plus there is such a variety of different accrediting organisations it becomes very confusing for the average shopper.
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Consumers making an informed choice
Fair Trade works well especially for foods like coffee because it is entirely self-explanatory and easily understood. What fashion desperately needs is a one size fits all labelling system which will allow all purchasers to make an informed choice. And that word “informed” is crucial. For example how does the shopper know whether their carbon footprint will be greater getting in their car and travelling to a shop from which to buy a coat that will last them years or would they be serving the planet better to stay at home and save the petrol but purchase fast fashion online? Wanting to do the right thing is all well and good but knowing what the right thing is, is a whole other matter. And how many people realise that in washing, drying and ironing their clothes they are producing far more carbon than was ever involved in bringing their favourite tee-shirt halfway round the world? There are laudable initiatives aimed at increasing understanding of the issues. For example Condé Nast has produced a sustainable fashion glossary filled with terms common to the industry but less well known by the public.
A sustainable future for the fashion industry
Fashion is an especially interesting industry; designers who are by nature individualistic trying to produce in volume for people who all want to look different does not easily make for streamlined processes. People don’t want uniforms however much it would help if we all wore the same. Maybe we should introduce clothing coupons like those so prized during the war, but even that would probably only result in a global black market where production and employment standards would be non-existent.
Much (perhaps most) of the fashion industry wants to create a sustainable future and is trying hard to make worthwhile steps towards it. How far any industry so disparate can be expected to make truly worthwhile and impactful change while the system in which we all operate is designed to do precisely the opposite is a question not even the most creative and dazzling fashion designer can be expected to answer. Positive change has been waiting in the wings – now as we navigate a post-pandemic world (let’s pray this is the case) – maybe the system can and will be changed forever.
By Harriet Posner