Fast fashion faces a shake-up in post-pandemic world
The Covid-19 pandemic may herald the end of the current high production, fast fashion model and result in fewer, smaller collections from more sustainable supply chains.
There will likely be more focus on flexible sourcing – smaller orders, closer to market, more diversification of sourcing locations – as well as on in-season replenishment, says Lutz Walter, director for innovation and skills at Euratex, the European apparel and textile confederation.
Moreover, it might prompt some reshoring, with "more focus on critical local supply chains in the European Union/US, and questioning of total clothing export dependence in major CMT [cut, make and trim] countries like Bangladesh."
In Italy, Dr Gianfranco Di Natale, managing director of Italian clothing and textile industry federation Sistema Moda Italia, agrees. "Supply chains with a lower environmental impact will be created, and proximity chains will be preferred over countries with lower costs. The demand for products from truly sustainable supply chains will increase, as was already happening before the crisis."
A recent Euratex survey shows some 60% of European companies expect a 50%-plus drop in sales and production, with one in four considering closing altogether. Survivors must have a "flexible/fast responding, digitally connected supply chain," and "strong trusted business relationships," Walter believes.
With many textile and clothing companies turning to mask-making, Covid-19 may create a “lasting reconversion of textile/clothing businesses to technical, functional textiles and PPE [personal protective equipment] as CMT operators find making PPE is a more reliable and profitable business than making fashion products for international brands."
Such predictions of change also come from Orsola de Castro, the founder of UK-based fashion sustainability campaign Fashion Revolution. She argues the pandemic will be a "turning point" in the fast fashion model, with consumers in future prioritising quality over quantity.
“Having a brand story, incredible product and a sustainability message will be really key for brands to survive this and stay relevant to what consumers want” - Elizabeth Stiles
The large stockpiles of unsold inventory will, she claims, turn consumers from "buy and throw" to "buy to keep," with increasing demand for brands that can demonstrate sustainability in production that "responds to the needs of the planet."
UK-based fashion industry consultant Elizabeth Stiles agrees, saying "conscious consumerism" will "really accelerate once stores have reopened."
She adds that having a "brand story, incredible product and a sustainability message will be really key for brands to survive this and stay relevant to what consumers want."
This will underpin any reshoring undertaken to reduce supply chain risk. "I think manufacturing will be done closer to home mainly due to necessity but also for brands to react quickly" to post-coronavirus shifts in market sentiment.
However, such a shift would not be good news, according to another UK consultant, Clothesource CEO Mike Flanagan. He argues that making fast fashion or foreign sourcing the scapegoat of Covid-19 generated woes will make matters worse.
"It risks causing more human misery than the infection itself" by passing onto the "world's poorest [garment making] countries the most savage economic consequences of a disease that so far seems largely confined to the world's richest."
“Entrepreneurs might try lots of pop-ups, using parcels of otherwise unsellable garments from that clothes surplus mountain, combined ingeniously, through otherwise unusable town centre retail premises” - Mike Flanagan, Clothesource
Instead, he thinks fast fashion will adapt rather than disappear. First, retailers will clear their unsold inventory: "Entrepreneurs might try lots of pop-ups, using parcels of otherwise unsellable garments from that clothes surplus mountain, combined ingeniously, through otherwise unusable town centre retail premises."
During the late 1940s and 1950s, "massive merchandise overhang" created by demobilisation following World War Two sparked the creation of army and military surplus stores. Flanagan predicts "a brief revival in similar formats – and, as lockdowns soften, more and more imaginative uses of retail space to combine sales effectiveness and profitability."
This might spark "lots of dynamism in how stores and websites are laid out for merchandisers with a gift for showmanship – and a supply system that can twist garments quickly to consumer fads."
And looking forward, he predicts that even if supply chains simplify, that "doesn't mean the same season-neutral winter jackets all year round, but small-scale ateliers adding grace notes to bulk clothes made in Bangladesh or China – and possibly changing them into different grace notes six weeks later."
Robert Burke of Robert Burke Associates, a New York-based retail consultancy, thinks some brands may use Covid-19 as a reset button, pushing away from traditional wholesale business models and sharpening their focus on direct-to consumer and setups where they control their own space and inventories within surviving department stores.
When the dust settles, he says, it will be brands, not retailers, that will lead the way. "The bigger brands were already learning to be more flexible, with deliveries to their own stores, and the brands usually know how to run retail better than the department stores."
This will enable them to respond to changes in demand as the pandemic subsides, which Burke predicts will see designers reducing the collection process and consumers seeking more longevity in purchases.
"It is a different type of fashion industry. The designers are taking a hit. None of us has seen anything like this in our lifetime. The fact is that we didn't see this during 9-11. We saw an impact to business, but it was nothing like this. In the end it will sort itself out – but it's going to be a painful realignment."
By Liz Newmark, Poorna Rodrigo and Ed Zwirn.
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