Why sustainability must drive fashion's Covid reset

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the industry with an opportunity to pause, reflect and rethink. As it looks to regain its footing, winners will be those that reset with sustainability in mind. By Beth Wright.

"Acontinued commitment to sustainability and innovation is not only important to ensure the industry meets sustainability targets, but brands, manufacturers, and retailers with a focus on innovation and sustainability are more prepared to meet the challenges ahead and will emerge from this crisis all the stronger," says Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good.

Natasha Franck, founder and CEO of Internet of Things platform Eon, concurs, adding the transformation of current business models to better align economic growth with circular and sustainable values is "mission-critical."

"Moving forward, business model transformation – specifically the adoption of responsive, connected, circular value chains – will be the price of entry into the market for brands that want to survive, thrive, and lead in the new post-pandemic economy."

Why sustainability?

Industry consultant Robert Antoshak says sustainability got pushed to the side during Covid as a luxury some couldn't afford, but notes it now offers a way for the sector to find its way back into broader consumer relevance.

"It's a very smart strategy from a business standpoint. Sustainability properly managed is really a cost efficiency programme because you have less inputs and so forth."

If you're a room of ten people, and you ask what sustainability is, you get back 12 answers. There has to be a concerted effort on defining what is sustainable

- Robert Antoshak

Meanwhile, Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at Global Fashion Agenda, says the pre-Covid fashion system went "way beyond planetary boundaries."

He notes the need to create a prosperous industry that considers climate and creates decent jobs, adding: "Maybe we don't even build back better; we don't even build a new house, this needs to be a space rocket or a totally new structure because there was so much wrong with the old system."

Disruptive innovations

For a more sustainable future, the industry must harness disruptive innovations, be it new materials, processes, or technologies, Ley asserts.

Eon is one example in the tech space. Its Partner Network builds connected systems for the circular economy across fashion retail by allowing brands and retailers to track their products and tap into recommerce and recycling business models. As more partners emerge, the idea is that industry transformation not only becomes possible – it becomes inevitable.

Andreas Streubig, director of global sustainability at Hugo Boss, also points to technology. He explains the pandemic accelerated the virtualisation of the workplace – something he believes is here to stay and will shape the future way of working, including the approach to sustainability.

Regarding materials, Francois Souchet, lead of the Make Fashion Circular (MFC) programme at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, says products must be made so they can be returned or recycled, with materials that are not hazardous to people or the environment.

Meanwhile, for Antoshak, there needs to be a comprehensive assessment of how the industry defines sustainability. "If you're a room of ten people, and you ask what sustainability is, you get back 12 answers. There has to be a concerted effort on defining what is sustainable."

Future of supply chains

So where does this leave the supply chain?

Antoshak says the massive globalisation of the past may turn into a massive rationalisation, with Asian markets supplying Asian consumers and so forth. "You'll have a different approach," he asserts but adds it is "unrealistic" to think fast fashion will ever be entirely eliminated.

Lehmann, meanwhile, points to growing requirements for transparency and collaboration, noting a more collaborative brand-supplier relationship will develop "feedback loops" that can boost brand agility and enable future winners.

He adds: "How can you solve some of the challenges in the supply chain, in terms of human rights issues, without having a close relationship with your buyers and a more equal partnership where you listen to all of your suppliers and the knowledge they have on sustainability? A mutual partnership, a more equal partnership, is what needs to happen."

Barriers to change

But as in any industry, there are challenges. These include changing mindsets, developing innovation capabilities, workforce retraining, and ensuring consumers' needs are still being met.

Patience, however, will be key.

"The business case is not there to look at sustainability in the short term," Lehmann cautions, with Ley adding: "No single stakeholder operating on its own can provide all of the capabilities and factors needed."

Turning point?

But will the pandemic really shift the needle?

For Lehmann, while it will galvanise some to change, he says others will simply find it too difficult. He explains for many companies, sustainability was not a focus or part of their core business and now they are simply fighting for survival.

"Do I see them doing more sustainability? No. For me, it's not where they're going, they're just trying to survive quarter by quarter."

Antoshak also foresees a tale of two halves. "I think the reality is for part of the industry, it will be a permanent change. For another part, it'll just be a snapback. At the end of the day, I think the ultimate decision-maker in this will be the consumer."

Main image: The new denim collection from Spanish clothing brand Mango will save 30m litres of water through more sustainable finishing processes. Credit: Mango