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How COVID – 19 Could Instigate a Long – awaited Industry Overhaul: The Slow Fashion Era


By Natasha Frangos, Partner, haysmacintyre

As shops reopen their doors to customers, retailers will start to breathe a sigh of relief as an end to the COVID-19 crisis appears to creep nearer. There is, of course, still much uncertainty in the sector, with the unknown around how consumers will react to this ‘new normal’ and the wider economic backdrop putting trading in the balance. Even so, the need to address the sustainability of the fashion industry, which had become the topic of much discussion before the pandemic, remains prevalent. In fact, the events of the past few months have perhaps put environmental considerations into even sharper focus.

The dawn of this decade saw a surge of climate protests, and this increased awareness of fashion’s impact on the environment triggered a shift within the industry. Consumers were already becoming turned off from throwaway-fashion, actively taking steps to reduce their waste, and many brands adopted environmentally friendly initiatives, such as Mango’s sustainable denim range and John Lewis’ collaboration with sustainable luxury brand Mother of Pearl. So, where next?

Keeping consumers on board

Since COVID-19 took hold of the UK earlier this year, leaving the future of businesses of all sizes hanging in the balance, consumer appetite for ethical and sustainable purchases has grown. If there is one positive to take from the crisis, it is perhaps that the damage being done to the planet has somewhat slowed, allowing society as a whole to become more conscious in their actions.

Now, eager to support independent businesses and with initiatives like ‘#ShopLocal’ circulating on social media, consumers are rallying around their community high streets and questioning the ethical responsibility of the bigger brands. What’s more, many people will have suffered a hit to their personal finances and, with an uncertain future economic outlook, shoppers will increasingly take more time to carefully consider what they buy, as well as why they are buying it: investment pieces that may cost more but last longer will likely rise in popularity over the cheaper, fast-fashion alternatives.

The business case

With the lockdown bringing operations to a halt, many brands have had time out to reflect and consider their positioning. Brands will, more than ever, need to put customers at the heart of what they do if they are to stay relevant in these challenging times. Emerging as a strong, viable business on the other side will mean moving with demand, and this includes employees too. Working for a brand that has purpose at its core will be as important as buying from one, so businesses can factor in talent retention to their decision-making, as much as keeping customers and addressing a collective moral imperative to be more sustainable.

Those brands who may have faced complications with accessing stock stuck abroad, as a result of their over-reliance on too few manufacturers further afield, may well assess the suppliers they work with. A better way to manage risks could come through working with local producers, helping to support the local economy whilst also reducing carbon emissions thanks to less travel. Although such considerations might seem costly, particularly for boutique brands, it should be seen as a worthwhile recovery investment in light of the current direction of demand.

Changing trends

How products are designed and created in this industry has long been due an overhaul. The pace at which designers churn out new collections for different seasons has seen brands frantically compete to bring out more and more lines, which has not only been detrimental to the environment, but to workers too. With the changing climate blurring seasons, it is time to really question the relevance of seasonal collections. Some brands have already started to bring out non-seasonal lines, including Burberry and Gucci, the latter of which recently announced it would only hold two ‘seasonless’ catwalk events annually, but we should only expect this to increase.

With home working likely to become a more permanent fixture in many people’s lives, combined with a lack of large events in light of ongoing caution around safety, brands should also be considering their product mix. Addressing current and future consumer needs, such as incorporating more casual loungewear items, will be equally important to sustainable strategies.

Despite many businesses being focused on surviving the lockdown, there is little doubt a company’s future is intrinsically linked with its efforts to drive forwards a sustainable agenda. Fashion, being among the industries with the biggest impact on the climate, will need to go through a dramatic shift to improve its environmental outlook. The mindset of consumers is already favouring the ethical brands – it’s now time for fashion businesses to take note and take action to accelerate sustainable practices.

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