Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital and interesting talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. From today, this roundup will also be delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
With supply chains ready to snap, sustainability threatens to either unravel or knit together like never before.
Two weeks ago, The Interline wrote that the fashion industry was making larger strides than ever towards a more sustainable future, but that “the playing field keeps getting stretched”. Today, that paragraph feels like the product of a different time. The playing field has been all but obliterated, with Wharton University (among many other academic institutions and analysts) explaining that the global supply chain is ready to snap under unprecedented disruptive load.
From The Interline’s point of view, there are two ways this could play out for the ideal of an ethical, egalitarian, and environmentally harmonious supply chain.
We’ll start with the catastrophic first.
To put it bluntly, brands and retailers that pride themselves on their environmental and ethical credentials are about to have that commitment tested like never before. From a relatively seamless, inter-continental value chain from raw material to end consumer, the world has rapidly devolved to a point where the manufacture of most non-essential goods has either been disrupted or outright halted. At the same time, retailers have gone from appraising their balance sheets to radical discounting of current stock, closing all physical stores and, in extreme cases, laying off staff or folding completely.
In that context, it’s entirely possible that brands and retailers could overlook their scruples as they hold on for dear life. In practice, this could mean relaxing or even abandoning supplier codes of practice in a desperate attempt to get products over the line and into e-commerce channels – which, for a lot of the world, are the only channels operating right now, with a huge increase in demand.
If that sounds extreme, consider for a moment how many apparel, footwear, and accessories companies are publicly-owned, and ask yourself how the market might feel about a few “necessary” transgressions if they helped to keep a big entity afloat.
And that’s only looking at things at the individual brand level.
The positive environmental impact of so many worldwide distancing measures and lockdowns has made for some cute news stories. Clear waters, dolphins and swans in the Venice canals, and up to a 50% fall in CO2 and carbon monoxide emissions in major cities as private and public transport slows down.
But however apocalyptic things feel right now, this lockdown will not last forever. So what happens when people and businesses are free again?
The pessimistic view is that we’ll be back to our old tricks and then some. If the 2008 financial crisis was any indication, we could see a severe overcompensation in carbon output across industries once the coronavirus outbreak is under control. And as a pollutant-heavy industry, fashion could be a major contributor to that trend as mills, dye houses, factories, and distribution centres whir into their highest gear to make up for lost time.
But there’s reason to look beyond the easy, cynical viewpoint. The current crisis has seen an outpouring of charity and social good from the fashion and fashion-tech industries, with LVMH rapidly repurposing its fragrance factories to make hand sanitiser for healthcare workers, and Georgio Armani, Moncler, Only The Brave, Dolce and Gabbana and many more Italian fashion moguls donating millions to help the fight against the virus. And at the same time, remote working platforms and digital conferencing services are pulling out all the stops to meet heightened demand for remote collaboration.
And there’s also a big argument to be made that, even when the offshore supply chain model regains its footing, many brands and retailers will have already turned to more proximate methods of production – bringing manufacturer either near or on-shore, to improve trust, transparency and resiliency.
When the consumer goes to ground, how can brands reach them? By getting real.
We wrote last week that many brands – especially in luxury – were beginning to embrace the video-sharing service TikTok, and that strategy is likely to be paying dividends as the virus outbreak keeps more and more consumers in their homes, looking for connections.
The unvarnished nature of TikTok is not likely to suit every brand, though, and even digital-native companies that have built a following through the service are now finding themselves faced with questions over the suitability (in light of current distancing and isolation measures) of what the world now calls “influencer houses,” but which The Interline less charitably sees more like content mills staffed by the young and naive.
It seems more likely that the successful approach for most brands will be a middle ground between the untamed, youthful frontier of services like TikTok and the rise of virtual shows and showrooms that are all but guaranteed to be adapted from their current use in buying and merchandising to more consumer-facing applications.
Whether you’re looking up or downstream, technology is going to be a necessity.
In both cases, though – whether it’s dealing with supply chain uncertainty, or trying to identify new methods to reach downstream, fashion will need to ask itself some big questions before this month is out. And technology – especially of the upstream variety, as The Interline wrote about this week – is going to be the only way to answer a lot of them. Indeed, The Interline argued this Monday that, in the face of this unprecedented, global crisis, fashion really has no choice other than to finish its digital transformation.