COVID-19 & the Fall of the Fashion Industry

For most of us sustainability aficionados, April is a month to celebrate not only our beautiful planet on Earth Day but also Fashion Revolution Week, which shines a spotlight on how intimately the environment and fashion industry are intertwined. However, this year, we’re having to step away from their regular programming due to our immersion in a global pandemic caused by the novel Coronavirus. Most businesses have been forced to pause while we wait for the curve to flatten, affecting everything from large and small fashion brands and manufacturers to factory workers and retailers. On lockdown, many of us are struggling to make ends meet, while still being required to pay rent and mortgages, feed our families and take care of our children. With these grave circumstances so in the forefront, where does buying non-essentials really fit into the equation?1 

This question raises big questions around consumer spending and the future of fashion. As many of us scurry to reposition our businesses and respond to the crisis (the harsh reality is, some of us are just not going to survive), we’re also changing the clothing industry for months, possibly even years. 

How COVID-19 has quickly torn apart the fashion supply chain is a stern reminder of the type of climate emergency we’re truly in. Although there are signs of improvement when it comes to transparency, previous years show that huge gaps in information from fashion companies prevail, especially when it comes to the effects of social and environmental commitments.

Fashion Revolution Week was formed in response to a major human catastrophe – the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, which killed more than 1,000 garment workers in Bangladesh. Now, as we face the largest humanitarian crisis since then, “Many of the world’s biggest fashion brands are evading responsibility and its associated costs.” This response (or lack thereof) is similar to the way brands handled the aftermath of Rana Plaza. Not to mention, the current scenario is being further compounded by an economic crash greater than the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.2, 3

What will people buy right now?

The apparel industry is down 50%. With added time at home, people are predominantly putting their money towards groceries and health necessities, “essential” items that are consistent with the brick-and-mortar stores allowed to remain open. Uncertainty and fear are top-of-mind, and many people are concerned about spending money at all, which ultimately can be as damaging to the economy as the pandemic itself.

Our lifestyles have shifted. Temporarily, we no longer have a need for more workwear or formal outfits for evenings out with loved ones. Online shopping for clothes almost seems irrelevant (unless you’re upping your loungewear or activewear game) despite many apparel brands offering promos and sales in order to generate revenue and sell through their inventory.4

Changing the paradigm.

Most of us are feeling the economic effects, but it’s the lowest-paid factory workers who are being hit the most by COVID-19. In Bangladesh, more than $3 billion in orders have been canceled or put on hold due to the virus’ outbreak.5 These workers are people living in poverty, and more people die from abject poverty than COVID-19.6 On the other side of the world, where the Everviolet collection is made, a similar situation is unfolding. Due to the underground nature of Los Angeles’ garment industry, many factory workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits. While some brands are offering compensation packages for those working in retail or in-house, craftspeople,  sewers and seamstresses are not being protected.7 

The global pandemic has dramatically changed our industry at a shocking rate. Warehouse workers fulfilling e-commerce orders are now considered to be key personnel on the frontlines of the pandemic and are fighting to receive better protection. Companies like Everlane are under intense scrutiny for how they have been treating their employees in the face of the crisis, laying off handfuls of people with little to no notice.8, 9 Yet Evervlane’s struggles are just one example of what is transpiring amidst the entire world of venture-backed direct-to-consumer brands. Most retail brands and brick-and-mortar stores also have fixed costs whose cash reserves are quickly draining.10

The Future of Fashion 

Consumer spending on fashion will likely decline further, especially if lockdown orders persist through May and unemployment rates continue to increase. In turn, people will probably need to use their stimulus checks on essentials, not clothing. This disruption could result in a much-anticipated “retail apocalypse” for brick-and-mortars and force stores to enhance their online presence more than ever before.11 Small businesses had high hopes for payroll loans, but the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has thus far granted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to large, publicly traded companies. (Yes, our system can be that disappointing.) 12

The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is trying to help where the Small Businesses Administration (SBA) failed -- offering grants (under $100,000) to independent designers, stores and contractors with the goal of getting small amounts of money in the hands of to as many as possible. This could help designers pay their factories and fabric suppliers, or stores pay designers for pre-ordered inventory.13

How can we help support the fashion industry during this time?

There comes a time (and we think it’s now) when we as a humanity are called to shift to a new level of consciousness and become more aware of how we’re spending our dollars. If we have the means to shop local and support small brands online, let’s do so. We need to ask questions like #WhoMadeMyClothes? and support companies that protect their workers and care about their imprint on the environment. Slow fashion brands matter, as does the decision to purchase products made with quality and sustainable materials. We need to adopt a mindset of longevity when it comes to our clothes.

“If there is a green lining, it may be that we jointly have an opportunity to reset the (fashion) business. We have to rethink and rebuild the business and not try to go back to business-as-usual. If we fail to utilize this opportunity for change, we are going to see a crisis much bigger than coronavirus,” said Eva Kruse, CEO of Global Fashion Agenda.14

Our voices are important and now, through social media and extensive time indoors, we can speak up together. We’re living in a time where we have to stand up to fear. We may be apart, but in some ways, we’re more connected to each other and our planet than ever before. This is a wakeup call from Mother Earth. Let’s listen.

For more ways to stand together to protect and support all of those who make our clothes, you can go to Fashion Revolution’s website and scroll to the bottom of the page.

“Years ago, I made the switch from quantity to quality, and that value is at the heart of the Everviolet collection. Instead of making massive quantities of bras that fall apart, we create lingerie that lasts — in small batches at a local, ethical factory in LA using sustainable materials that are good for the body and the planet.” – Keira Kotler, Everviolet Founder + CEO