Image: H&M

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, global retailers were struggling. J. Crew, for example, which has garnered the title of the coronavirus’ “first big retail casualty” since filing for Chapter 11 protection in early May, was facing mounting debt and ever-plummeting relevance long before the global health crisis. Beyond its over-reliance on physical retail, mounting debt and limited cash reserves, J. Crew is among the brands that were “wandering around aimlessly pre-pandemic,” according to Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at the Columbia Business School. 

J. Crew joins a long list of apparel brands that have announced sales losses, job cuts and store closures in recent months, while others, such as Neiman Marcus and True Religion, have also sought legal protection from creditors, as retail’s existing struggles have been intensified by COVID-19 and the consumption changes that it has advanced rather rapidly. 

Aside from many brands’ and retailers’ steadfast reliance on physical retail and their failure to invest heavily enough (and fast enough) in e-commerce, which has been the major downfall of a handful of big names, another one of the challenges for no small number of retailers is cut-throat price competition from the market’s fast fashion giants – from first-movers like Zara, Primark and H&M to newer market-entrants, such as Fashion Nova, PrettyLittleThing and Misguided. 

In the wake of the Great Recession, low-priced garments became all the more attractive to consumers after their spending power was weakened. This brought about the era of increased demand for fast fashion – low-priced, trend-specific clothes that are largely viewed as disposable. Such demand has enabled companies like Inditex, which owns Zara and Massimo Dutti, among other brands, to build massive businesses. Arteixo, Spain-based Inditex generated $32.1 billion in 2019, while H&M saw sales of $24.3 billion last year. 

Despite the continued success of the market’s early fast fashion pioneers and a slew of digitally-native counterparts, there has been a rise in attention to – and demand for – sustainability among consumers. Not all that long ago, it seemed possible that consumers might be galvanized to shop more consciously, and maybe even abandon (to some extent) the high-volume consumption model pushed by the market’s fast fashion giants. 

Then came the pandemic. 

With many high street shops forced to close up their brick-and-mortar stores, the whole industry has been in flux. Giants like Primark and H&M scrambled to cancel or suspend orders in places like Bangladesh, causing some factories to close. There may be big environmental benefits from the world at a standstill, but it will be little consolation to garment workers who are furloughed or jobless. 

Amidst all this upheaval, there is an opportunity for the fashion industry – both to help these workers and more broadly to put sustainability at the heart of their business. If companies can make positive changes to help manage coronavirus, they can also address fast fashion.

If, for example, companies paid garment workers the living wage for their part of the world, they could use it in their marketing to garner a competitive advantage in much the same way that brands did when they pivoted from making fragrances to producing hand sanitizers. Paying a living wage does not significantly increase the cost of garments. Take the example of a T-shirt with a retail price of $30, for which the worker receives 0.6 percent or $0.18. If that was doubled to $0.36, it would not increase the overall price by very much. It would, however, impact the garment workers. Paying a living wage would enable workers in developing countries to afford more nutritious food, clean water, shelter, clothes, education, healthcare and transportation, while potentially also leaving some money left over for emergencies or for savings. 

Another tactic that fashion marketers could use is to encourage consumers by way of a similar cool-to-care ethos to that has been brought out by the pandemic. Business in numerous sectors are readily focusing their marketing messages – and their philanthropic initiatives – on supporting essential and front-line workers to capitalize on this spirit of collective solidarity. Fashion marketers could channel people’s desire for self-gratification towards buying clothes that contribute to the social good. 

TOMS is an example of a fashion business with giving at the core of its strategy: for every pair of shoes sold, a pair is donated to a child in need. Since 2006, 100 million pairs of shoes have been donated, and TOMS has since expanded upon its charitable mission. Instead of the one-for-one match, Toms will now invest $1 of every $3 customers spend with a broader group of humanitarian organizations, including those working on issues like female empowerment, homelessness, gun violence prevention and social impact entrepreneurship. 

All the while, director-to-consumer eyewear unicorn Warby Parker adopted the buy-one, give-one model,  “working with a handful of partners worldwide to ensure that for every pair of Warby Parker glasses purchased, a pair of glasses is distributed to someone in need.”

Still yet, another endeavor that should be encouraged centers on initiatives that actively expand the lifecycle of apparel and accessories – whether that take the form of a heightened reliance on resale sites and marketplaces, such as The RealReal or ThredUo or an emphasis on recycled textiles by manufacturers. 

In sum, the fashion industry should take advantage of the pandemic-induced pause to show constructive leadership to the global economy. It should use its power to help change our relationship with clothing into something more sustainable for the long term.

Elaine Ritch is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Glasgow Caledonian University. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)