High volume, low quality, ethically ruthless, and ecologically blind. Until the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the pendulum mid-swing, all of those criticisms could have been justifiably levelled at mass market fashion.

It’s easy to poke holes in the past, of course, with hindsight on your side. But whether we like it or not, fashion retail has made itself an easy target. As an industry we have been slow to change. And with the exception of the obvious trailblazers, brands and retailers have been too stubborn to try and tackle the root causes that contributed to a history chequered with inequality at best, and outright exploitation at worst.

There are counter-arguments for all these things, of course. We’ve heard them in damage-limitation public statements and on the floor of the UK parliament. The most prominent is that high street and online channels are just delivering what the market wants – in a world where the average person buys close to seventy garments a year, and wears each one fewer than ten times before throwing it away after just five weeks.

But just as we created that appetite, we can modify it. And while it would sound more upbeat if I said “no time like the present” to do so, the reality, once we come out the other side of retail’s worst months in living memory, is going to fall closer to “we have no other choice”.

As anyone with children knows, telling someone to stop doing something potentially damaging is destined to fail if they’re going to be insulated from the consequences anyway. This, to stretch out an analogy, is where the fast fashion sector has been for the last few years. Its deleterious, ongoing effect on the environment has been well-documented, but it hasn’t stopped. Its reputation for questionable labour practices is an open secret, but with extremely limited transparency on living wages, it’s impossible to say whether those practices have changed.

And yet these companies are thriving – even as I write – because there has been limited punitive response from regulators, stakeholders, or the open market. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shove sustainability and ethics off the corporate slate at the same time as pushing it up the consumer agenda, it seems inevitable that a clash is coming. And it could be dragging a big bag of overdue consequences with it.

Do I wish the galvanic jolt that brought us to this point had been less traumatic? Absolutely.  I have friends at every level of brand, retail, and manufacturing operations – not to mention technology – and it pains me to see them suffer for something that is not, in any way, their personal fault.  And it hurts, too, that the world is having to pay the price to help wake up an industry that’s already exacted such a heavy toll on the planet and its people.

But do I think a softer shock would have worked? Probably not. Because it hadn’t done before.

Otherwise why would every step forward in sustainability be followed by two steps back, as the industry kept going back to the well of low-cost, zero-visibility offshore production?

Otherwise why did we keep flooding channels already bursting with high-volume, low-quality, iterative product knowing full well that a good portion of it would end up being discounted or dumped?

Otherwise, why would we still be here, at least five years after 3D became commercially, technically, and aesthetically viable, hearing that brands are approaching 3D vendors in droves, suddenly and desperately trying to kick-start their digital transformations?

But that desperation should be what worries us all. Not just because it’s new and terrifying, but because, unless business models change rapidly, things are going to get worse before they get better. And the poor and the vulnerable – at home and abroad – will be the ones picking up the tab.

Dignity, Meaning, and Hope

The first wave of coronavirus-fuelled pain was felt in the places most of The Interline’s readers call home: the USA, Europe, and the UK. As stores were unceremoniously shuttered, sales assistants, cashiers, distribution drivers, pickers, packers, young designers and big brand creatives all felt the pinch. That pinch hurt more in the USA, where retail employs close to five million people in sales alone, and where the social safety net is less robust. But the picture is hardly rosy in the UK and Europe either; compensation for lost wages and protection for furloughed workers can only be temporary, and there is unlikely to be much in the way of centralised budget for retraining or re-skilling the people whose jobs the crisis will permanently cut.

The Interline wrote extensively about this at the close of last week, arguing that the crisis has led to the need for retailers to become custodians of their direct employees’ wellbeing. And despite some dystopian holdouts, there’s reason to believe that progress is going to keep being made in that area, helping to soften the blow to fashion retail workers in the Western hemisphere.

But beyond that first shockwave, COVID-19 is going to cause the most collateral damage when brands and retailers lean down – pressing on some of the poorest people in the world. Last week, Arcadia Group – which owns several high street fashion retailers here in the UK and internationally – cancelled more than £100 million in orders, with around a tenth of that value being lost in Bangladesh alone. And this is a toe in the water compared to the £20 billion in supplier orders that the World Retail Consortium believes have been cancelled, lots of which will be concentrated in countries that have become major garment producers not because of a concentration of expertise, but because their socioeconomic status lets them offer labour at an incredibly low price.

Acradia’s offer to accept orders already in transit, but only at 2/3 of the agreed price, is emblematic of the long-standing power imbalance that has kept the high-volume, low-price fashion model running. And while this was unsavoury at the best of times, it’s made worse today because COVID-19, of course, is not just over here – in consumption markets, where people can claim unemployment and receive wage relief or stimulus cheques. It’s over there, in production markets, where losing a lifeline at the sewing machine can easily mean losing basic sanitation, being forced to migrate hundreds of miles on foot, or not being able to eat.

A report issued by McKinsey this month cast COVID-19 as possibly “one of the biggest destroyers of jobs in human history,” and explained that a loss of employment leads to “a loss of dignity, meaning, and hope”.

These needs are universal – high up on Maslow’s famous hierarchy – but the currencies needed to fulfil them were already unfairly distributed around the world before the current crisis. And stripping another layer of them from the people who staff garment factories in India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the necklace of countries that make up North Africa will be tantamount to upending a bucket of water on someone who was already drowning.

To be clear: I’m not talking about un-cancelling orders as thought it were a magic bullet. But neither can we think about those orders – or the contracts that gave rise to them – as purely commercial entities, because each of them comes with a very human cost. And that cost is something fashion is going to have to account for when the cogs of industry whir back up. Because the model we used pre-COVID-19 did not give it its proper weight, and it will be our collective responsibility to make sure the post-COVID-19 model does.

Reopening Responsibly

I recognise that brands and retailers are not charities. No business model can sustain the current situation: reduced or zero revenue, and no reduction in overheads unless you’re willing, or have the clout, to go down the route of simply refusing to pay rent.

So I also sympathise with the sheer hunger among businesses to get moving again – to reopen stores, replenish online channels and so on.

But despite that, I am not comfortable advocating for fashion to just pick up where it left off. Because to do so would be to ignore everything that was unsustainable about our industry – things that the crisis has shown us in sharp relief, but things of which we all should have been long aware, because they have been percolating just below the surface for far too long.

And as menswear brand owner Simon Carter put it this week, the pandemic is not an excuse to shift your risk burden over to your suppliers, because “people will remember”.

Instead, as a retail or brand owner, consider COVID-19 as your chance to be one of the architects of a more equitable model.

Understand, though, that you will, for a time, be swimming against the tide. When economies do begin to reopen, consumers will inundated with messaging designed to convince them to forget the pandemic and just move on – back to the old way. And as a fashion retail professional – whatever your level – you might find yourself being asked to look the other way while things pick back up.

What that more equitable model looks like is going to depend on your business model, your principles, and your priorities. But fortunately great guidelines exist for operationalising this heightened kind of responsibility, and exemplars of a more regional, sustainable model can easily be found if you look for them.

And technologies like 3D – our current editorial focus – have a vital part to play. They can strengthen good business models, scale up new and innovative strategies and channels, improve supply chain collaboration and reduce the tendency to shift pressure upstream, and even turn around questionable practices through greater visibility, transparency, and accountability.

But technology can’t – or shouldn’t – be used as a crutch to bring the old model back to life unaltered. The damage it causes has stayed out of sight for too long, and now COVID-19 has cast a light on it, it is our duty to tackle it at the roots. I believe the post-COVID-19 market will punish us, rightly, if we don’t.

Because if fashion is to have a responsibility reckoning, this is it.

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