The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on bad practices and unsustainable business models across industries, but one sector in particular has found itself at the forefront of this exposure—the fashion industry.
As one of the world’s most destructive business sectors, fashion is the world’s second worst offender when it comes to water pollution, according to the 2019 Global Wellness Trends Report, and is responsible for approximately 10 percent of all carbon emissions. Not to mention, with overproduction running 30 to 40 percent each season, more than 70 percent of clothes end up in a landfill and “an estimated $500 billion value is lost every year due to clothing being barely worn and rarely recycled,” The Business of Fashion reports.
“As we’ve seen the crisis unfold, the issues of resilience, or lack thereof, and various aspects of the supply chain have come to the fore within both the fashion and apparel space,” said Niall Murphy, CEO and cofounder of EVRYTHING, a tech platform providing digital identities for the world’s consumer products and a pioneer in bringing transparency to the fashion industry. “And in other categories, we’ve seen businesses called out, actually, with dependencies in their source materials, their raw materials, their components within their supply chain that they didn’t realize that they had because they don’t have sufficient level of visibility across the supply chain.”
Last week, Murphy was joined by Vanessa Barboni Hallik, founder and CEO of sustainable fashion brand Another Tomorrow; e-commerce pioneer Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of The RealReal; and Kathleen Entwistle, private wealth advisor at UBS, for a discussion with Worth CEO Juliet Scott-Croxford about how the business of fashion is changing amidst COVID-19 and how sustainability, brand values and innovative technology will play a larger role in how consumers choose their apparel in a post-pandemic world.
“We’ve had challenge after challenge in both going from…we couldn’t hire fast enough to now we have to lay people off,” Wainwright said. “We’ve boarded up all of our stores. Hopefully, we can start doing curbside pickup at some point, but it’s been tough. On the flip side, the company and the team have shown tremendous innovation. The management team, the directors, the entire company has innovated beyond scope. And so, we’re going to end up in a really unique position when we pull out of this, which we’re starting to see some light.”
But as supply chains have globalized over the last several years, the issues facing the fashion and apparel industry cut much deeper than just the current crisis. “I think fashion and sustainability has been a hard sell historically,” Barboni Hallik said, noting that this unique moment could be seen as a test for the fashion industry “because it really has allowed so many people in so many critically vital areas of the economy to become seen in a way and create that empathy.”
All of the panelists agree that consumer education is critical. “I do think the first thing is understanding and having the information out there and available to people,” UBS’ Entwistle said.
“One of the things that I think is challenging, in terms of getting consumers to think about clothing as an asset, is this really disruptive sales cycle that the industry is in,” Barboni Hallik added. “And I think it’s really positive to see that some of the world is changing, but it’s very difficult to train a customer to think about clothing as an asset, when the retail price is only the retail price for a month, two months at best. And then it’s 40, 50, 60 percent off. So, I think that’s really challenging. I do think that the education piece and the communication piece is so important to actually enable customers to make better decisions. It was one of the major reasons why I started Another Tomorrow, because I found it just so incredibly frustrating to actually get any level of procurement information about how a product was made. You’re pretty much lucky to know what country it’s manufactured in, let alone how it was made.”
But even more important than education alone is that education, at least according to Wainwright, is turned into policy.
“Until laws change, even COVID isn’t going to change some of the practices,” Wainwright explained. “So, laws have to change. We can’t continue to produce so many goods that end up in landfill. There’s a truckload a second going into landfill as we speak; 50 percent of what’s made doesn’t sell. A lot of the luxury brands are still burning their bags because they can. They’re still burning their things because they can. Burberry stopped. Burberry partnered with The RealReal. We’re in conversations with other large brands. But until the governments really force it, COVID is not going to force sustainability. We view this as a serious issue.”
“Look, consumers, it’s going to be tough,” Wainwright continued. “We’re at this pivotal point where what governments do to help their people get back to work and also their focus on getting a vaccination and preventative medicine, how much effort is going to determine every country’s economy, and that’s a weird thing to say. As an entrepreneur, you like to think you chart your own destiny, but this is bigger than whatever any of us are doing here. Governments are going to help get people back on their feet. They’re also going to help science help give us some form of living with this horrible situation.”
“I do think that Julie’s point is right, that there’s a macro situation that’s much bigger than any of us,” Murphy added. “And we’ve got to keep our eyes on how those things affect us. But I am tremendously motivated by the degree of collaboration, and just conversations like this, that’s going on every day across industries where people are trying to work out how to find paths to solution. And that bodes well, that’s what you want to see in humanity, is collaboration and working out how we solve each other’s problems together. And I’m pretty optimistic about the fact that we’re going to dig ourselves out of this hole. We’re going to dig ourselves out of this hole well.”
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