Fashion Before and After COVID-19
On buying less but better, buying secondhand, and sometimes, not buying at all
Before the pandemic forced us all to hit pause, what was going on in fashion? The industry was somewhat in a war with itself, struggling to fix a problematic cycle it helped create and perpetuate.
With the democratization of modern fashion, brands heeded to increasing demands by shifting their operations to producing more, producing faster and producing to satisfy a craving for novelty. This enabled fashion to become the world’s second-largest economy in a few short decades. Operating in excess and fueling overconsumption became its dirty but open secret.
“The majority of clothing waste ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Globally, only 20% of clothing is collected for reuse or recycling.” ––Global Fashion Agenda
In 2017, Global Fashion Agenda reported that this continuous expansion meant that by 2030, consumption of apparel and footwear would more than double its pace in 2015. Projected global fashion consumption would be up by 63%, rising to 102 million tons of goods offered to shoppers. Along with it, the industry’s water consumption would jump to a total of 118 billion cubic meters. Its carbon footprint would increase 63%, adding up to 2,791m tons.
Should fashion continue on this trajectory, the total waste created by the industry would rise to a staggering 62%, bringing its total amount of waste to 148 million tons. “The majority of clothing waste ends up in landfills or is incinerated,” elaborated the report further. “Globally, only 20% of clothing is collected for reuse or recycling.”
“More Is More” Is Rearing Its Ugly Head
A surplus on both fronts, production and consumption, was fashion’s chicken and egg scenario.
In the world of high fashion, serving trends through seasonal collections paved the way for an increasingly saturated fashion calendar. In 2019, most if not all major houses presented up to four collections (menswear lines not included) in lieu of the biannual spring and fall shows. Pieces here would be picked up by high street and fast fashion brands that thrive in the copycat economy. It would then come as no surprise that iterations of looks from the runways of Milan Fashion Week appeared in Zara stores in a week’s time––produced en masse for the growing middle-class fashion consumer, with designer pricing stripped altogether for a wallet-friendly(ish) ₱695 or ₱3,295.
Before lockdowns were called for in light of COVID-19, fashion’s “business as usual” meant 100 billion articles of clothing produced every year. Yet for consumers on the receiving end, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, half of fast fashion buys were thrown away within the first year of purchasing them.
Evidently, for consumers, an intent to quickly obtain on-trend items came with an underlying intent to be done with the clothing just as quickly. If not, the quality of items ensured that shoppers would keep coming back. On making ends meet, NPR correspondent Jim Zarroli wrote: “Now that retailers have whetted customers’ demand for novelty, they have to keep their products affordable. That means manufacturing in low-wage countries like China, but it also means using cheap, synthetic materials and rudimentary manufacturing processes.”
Better Late Than Never?
Following 2018’s stint of fashion exposés, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company called 2019 a “Year of Awakening.” Its analysis in partnership with Business of Fashion pointed out: “[Players] need to take an active stance on social issues, satisfy consumer demands for radical transparency and sustainability, and, most important, have the courage to ‘self-disrupt’ their own identity and the sources of their old success to realize these changes and win new generations of customers.”
From within fashion’s walls, members of the industry have rallied to pump the brakes. To note, independent designers, CEOs and retail executives have come together with a proposal that reimagines the fashion industry. Called Rewiring Fashion, the group prefaces its mission with the statement: “we find ourselves facing a fashion system that is less and less conducive to genuine creativity and ultimately serves the interests of nobody: not designers, not retailers, not customers—and not even our planet.”
Reassessing the broken system had formerly been an open invitation, a gentle nudge, for the fashion sector. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the call to do so is now non-optional. With garment factories shut down, the fashion show––as we know it––being over, and brands making massive adjustments within their teams, fashion ceases to ever be the same.
As recent statics have shown, fashion spending certainly isn’t what we need.
Redefining Sustainable Fashion
While the last month saw a spike in online shopping for fashion goods, an “indicator of what is to be expected in retail stores as they reopen” according to Forbes, it is important to note that a larger segment of consumers is holding out on non-essential shopping and holding on to their savings. This has done well to shift consumers’ attention to a welcome emerging trend from recent years: fashion resale and rental.
In a time where retail brands responded to overconsumption by skewing their messaging to anti-fast fashion sentiment like “buy less when you buy better,” the smaller resale and renting industry chose instead to say: “Why buy new? Wait, why buy at all?”
This also addresses the loophole in pushing for sustainable fashion because the only true sustainable move in fashion is to stop shopping brand-new altogether.
Long Live Shopping Secondhand
Before the global pandemic struck, the fashion resale market was already poised to overtake the retail market in terms of growth. According to ThredUp’s 2019 Resale Report, the habit of thrift shopping had been picking up steam with Millennials at the forefront. “There are more secondhand shoppers than ever before. 56 million women bought secondhand products in 2018, up from 44 million in 2017,” the report said. “18 to 37-year-olds are adopting secondhand apparel 2.5 times faster than any other age group.”
With a one-two punch, buying secondhand gives pre-loved items a new life and instills a more thoughtful approach to shopping from the get-go. To truly close the loop, upcycling will need to play a bigger role in fashion after COVID-19––the precautions of mask-wearing, social distancing and thorough disinfecting of purchases in place in the new normal.
Ownership is Dead and That’s Ok
In many ways, the modern consumer is ready for this next frontier. Renting, for one, has been adopted in many other categories anyway. “Think of Spotify supplanting compact-disc sales and downloads, Netflix replacing video stores, and Zipcar standing in for car ownership among many young urbanites,” the McKinsey State of Fashion report said.
In the Philippines, Vestido Manila by fashion stylist Pam Quiñones serves as a prime example of the fashion rental business. Eliminating the common pitfall of shopping brand-new for every upcoming occasion, Quiñones and her team sought to provide a mix of local and international designer pieces for rent. “We believe that extending the life of clothing is one of the simplest ways to practice sustainable fashion. Choose, well, buy less, wear more, start renting.” The Vestido team said in a post, encouraging people to see renting as a way to tap into an “elevated wardrobe through upcycling.”
In the US and Europe, fashion rentals are on a steadier rise. “The possible value of the clothing rental market in the UK, alone, is predicted to be $1.2 billion,” wrote Naomi Braithwaite, a Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Branding at Nottingham Trent University, for The Fashion Law. “Paris-based Instant Luxe, an e-commerce site that already offers second hand designer garments and accessories to over one million members, said that it is testing the rental space in light of a new ‘pattern of consumption’ where women see no shame in renting their wardrobe.”
Meanwhile in China, where COVID-19 hit and spread first, fashion resale emerged out of a practical need rather than a move to innovate. “Many Gen-Z and Millennial shoppers are offloading possessions and embracing a new-found less-is-more attitude,” wrote Casey Hall for Business of Fashion.
Our relationship with fashion during and after COVID-19 should change. If it doesn’t, we stand to be part of the problem we have been given the opportunity to solve. Instead of buying less but better, we now have the obligation to go a step further. Buy secondhand, and sometimes, don’t buy at all.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver