Will sustainability take a back seat?

How retailers, manufacturers and brands feel about sustainability following Covid-19 rather depends on where you sit in the fashion supply chain.

Mostafiz Uddin, owner of a denim factory in Bangladesh, quoted recently in Vogue Business said he was planning to install solar panels on his factory and make other changes to reduce his footprint. “Now, forget it. Because of this coronavirus issue, now it’s a dream,” he says.

The brands owners take a different view; Rick Ridgeway, vice president of public engagement at Patagonia, said recently in Fashion United, “The metrics we use to measure the health of our businesses should also include the health of our planet. All of us have to double-down on sustainability, reducing environmental impacts and increasing social justice.”

Other priorities

And in between, the Internet is full of stories about how Covid-19 will accelerate the shift to sustainability but there is as yet no evidence to show this is true. The fact that it is all talk at the moment is inevitable given that everyone has to be completely focused on getting back to business as usual.

If this changes, the additional costs attendant on being sustainable will have to be clawed back. Consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products that can be recycled or reused, according to a new survey of 6,000 people worldwide by consultancy Accenture. But not all; Accenture found just under half would not and the over 40s were the least keen to cough up.

In terms of how much, Toluna, a consumer intelligence provider, surveyed 1,000 US consumers last year, showing that 37% of consumers are seeking out and willing to pay up to 5% more for environmentally friendly products and are actively changing their shopping behaviour to do so.

Clean beaches, more rubbish

Evidence either way is often contradictory. Volunteers with time on their hands have been cleaning up beaches all over Europe. At the same time, many municipal authorities responsible for rubbish collection have stopped processing for recycling because they are overwhelmed by a spike in rubbish volumes with everyone living at home.

On a positive note, companies for whom sustainability was embedded deep in their DNA, have continued in the same vein during lockdowns and now afterwards as retail and hospitality reopens.

Prada teamed up with bank Crédit Agricole Group through which it agreed to pay a variable annual interest rate based on how far it had achieved its sustainability targets. Prada however operates on some of the highest margins in fashion; it will be interesting to see what mid-market and value brands do if they are squeezed between their desire to be sustainable and what impact that has on their often tiny margins.

Judge not lest ye be judged

Whatever brands decide to do, ye shall be judged. Also in Fashion United, the trend researcher Li Edelkoort talked about a “quarantine for consumption” – one that has a devastating effect on our economy and culture, but ultimately offers “an empty page for a new beginning”.

While the conversation continues, it tends to shine an even brighter spotlight on the fast fashion brands that did not pay its suppliers for cancelled orders or close down factories fast enough or even at all. It will be interesting to see if their bargain-loving customers will punish them long term or whether this burst of righteous indignation is merely a blip.

Some consumers have jumped off the consumer fashion merry-go-round altogether, using their time during lockdown to make their own clothes and clear out wardrobes by selling clothing on second hand sites like depop. Again, the evidence does not make a hard case, but these actions to appear to be accompanied by a rise in consciousness that consumers will start to ask tougher questions of their brands around sourcing, worker wages, environmental impact of production and transport, and end of life processes.

Brands with a plan had better execute on it and in addition, show that they are doing it.

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