The pandemic has affected us all. From the way we work to the way we hug. As COVID-19 knocked us down Maslow’s Hierarchy it shifted us with tsunami effect. But has 2020’s fear and dark forced completely new ways of thinking with more inspired outcomes, or simply accelerated the inevitable on our evolutionary road to better?
Like the fashion industry, for years under scrutiny with shady questions around exploitation, wastage and sustainability, but left to fester and in the process, continuing to feed our greed of 52 micro-seasons a year. And especially fast fashion — cheap, trendy and quick runway knock-offs designed to fall apart — forced to a screeching halt.
A BREAKING POINT
In 2015 Paris-based Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort published her Anti_Fashion Manifesto outlining 10 main reasons why the fashion industry had reached a breaking point. Edelkoort critiqued everything from designers, education and fashion shows to manufacturing, materials and retailing, all the way through to how clothes are advertised, marketed, and purchased.
In discussing the manifesto, Edelkoort said “it is the end of fashion as we know it.” Perhaps Edelkoort’s singular statement captured the essence of the fashion industry’s looming existential crisis: “Now that several garments are offered cheaper than a sandwich, we all know and feel that something is profoundly and devastatingly wrong.”
But to understand how ‘devastatingly wrong’ it is that a sandwich costs less than the purse used to pay for it, requires a broader understanding of our excessive and conspicuous way of living, with little regard for anything or anyone else.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL COST
Let’s start with the basic fashion staple, the timeless T-shirt. And let’s look at just one element needed to produce this one T-shirt — water. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed for just one T-shirt. That’s more than three years’ worth of one person’s drinking water, for just one t-shirt. But we need to unpack this even further because that’s just one T-shirt, and one natural fibre required for its production.
Now reel in synthetic fibres. In Netflix’s series Patriot Act, host Hasan Minhaj explains that the polyester, spandex, and nylon industries use almost 342 million barrels of oil a year. And 33% of viscose and rayon in clothes comes from ancient or threatened forests with as much of 70% of the harvested wood dumped or incinerated —with just 30% is used in the garments we buy.
In total, the $672.3 billion global apparel market emits 1.7-billion tons of CO2 per year amounting to 10% of all man-made annual carbon emissions – that’s more than all international flights and shipping.
Minhaj goes onto explain how Americans buy 64 new pieces of clothing every year compared to 12 new items in the 1980s, and wear half of these items three times or less. And after all that buying — globally the fashion industry produces 114 billion items of clothing a year — and of all the fabric used in producing all these billions of items, 87% ends up incinerated or in a landfill largely because recipient organisations can’t keep up with allocating the weekly tonnes of recycled items received.
THE HUMAN COST
And then there’s the human cost, factory workers mostly in developing countries keeping the production lines going at runway speed. From child labour to low wages, human exploitation is high and worrying.
Low wages and dire working conditions are prevalent in factories across China, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Compounding the imbalance, 85% of these labour forces are also female working between 60 and 140 hours per week without breaks and overtime pay, and fearful of taking annual leave or maternity leave to avoid losing their jobs. Physical working conditions are also unsafe and notorious for low or non-existent safety precautions.
And although child labour is outlawed in most countries, it is estimated that 170 million children are engaged in child labour. And mostly in developing countries producing textiles and garments to supply fast fashion to developed countries like the USA and Europe, to satisfy an insatiable consumerism.
BY DEFAULT OR DESIGN
So with the fast fashion industry at the epicentre of our obsessive and seemingly endless materialism, 2020 was the fashion industry’s perfect storm on a collision course to self-destruct. With so much ugly to make us look pretty, fast-tracked by the pandemic, a multitude of global fashion chains filed for bankruptcy.
In a recent Business of Fashion podcast, Edelkoort reflects on her 2015 predictions in light of the pandemic: “Maybe this virus was the amazing grace for the planet because the virus is making us do the things we knew already a long time; the things we had to do. The human disaster, an economic disaster, but it’s possibly the best thing that can happen to ecology.”
But at what cost to humanity? What about the catastrophic reality of widespread unemployment? Edelkoort speaks about ‘the age of the amateur’ and that ‘everything is up for renewal’. She adds: “It’s like we’ve come out of a war, our buildings are still standing but we have to invent everything from scratch…re-invent, re-construct, re-think systems. We can start on a blank page.”
And the re-writing has already begun.
Like fashion production legitimately addressing sustainability issues and not just greenwashing, to a the rise of re-commerce, which is all about re-selling or renting used items, to new kinds of experiential in-store shopping with more space, less stock and more beauty, to brands educating customers, to fashion giants re-setting and re-thinking. There’s much to be done, and the opportunities are endless.
An on an individual level, the change room is big, even if we start with just one thing. Like buying less, or buying items that aren’t made to fall apart, or wearing things for longer. Because, according to the world’s largest online thrift store ThredUp, if each of us buy just one used item this year instead of new it would amount to half a million cars off the road for a year.
Now that’s a fashion statement.
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