The world is facing unprecedented change. Coronavirus has sent shockwaves through all parts of society and fundamentally altered the social and economic reality that companies operate in.
While we’ve been in lockdown the earth has had a moment to breathe, showing us indisputable evidence that our rampant consumerism is accelerating climate change. China and Italy have seen dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the lockdown – both are key countries in terms of fashion production.
Fashion may seem frivolous, just a vehicle for luxury and fantasy, but as a $3,000 billion industry that employs 3,384,100,000 people globally, it’s an essential sector when considering the economic and environmental impact of this pandemic and any subsequent financial crisis. As one of the biggest polluters, the industry has taken some action to bring in sustainability goals in recent years, but this has not been enough.
In the midst of chaos, it can seem difficult to look ahead or to focus on long term goals. But in a time of confusion and panic, direction is needed more than ever. When a crisis hits, we are offered an opportunity to tip the balance: do we continue as we were and resume an economic model that failed so many during this time? Or do we take the failings exposed by this, learn from them, rethink, and restructure?
We spoke with sustainability consultancy In futurum founders Frederik Larsen and Moussa Mchangama about sustainability goals during a time of crisis, the illumination of exploitation as a result of the pandemic, the changing values of the industry, and what to expect for the future of fashion:
Sustainability goals in a time of crisis
In futurum works with brands and institutes like Magasin and Copenhagen Fashion Week, both major players within the Scandinavian fashion industry, and both hit hard by the crisis. They provide strategies, sustainability frameworks, workshops, communication tools, and advice to help businesses set long term sustainable goals. But in a period of such instability, “long term” is a difficult concept to grasp, and sustainability can often feel like an afterthought.
Moussa Mchangama, Co-founder of In futurum: In Scandinavia, at least in Denmark and Sweden, there’s a large focus on sustainability. But in a crisis like this, we move back a bit, everyone has to make sure they have a business still. You go back to something that’s so basic, it leaves very little space for anything else – including sustainability.
When everyone’s scrambling to ensure their employees or product line, it can seem so far fetched to say ‘mind you, remember your sustainability targets.’
Frederik Larsen, Co-founder of In futurum:: When you take the first steps [towards sustainability] and then suddenly something changes, it creates a completely new environment. It’s not a stable situation, so the response to it is still in a mode of crisis.
“We’ve heard plenty of stories from companies that are experiencing complications but they’re alright because they adjusted early, whether by digitizing, having close contact with customers, or opting for a slow production/sales cycle from the start. If you’re not dependent on having your goods shifted within a week, or else they’re lost to a trend and new collections, then you’re much better at coping.”
The best possible outcome of a crisis like this would be to continue with systems that have created more sustainable relationships between companies, production, employees, the larger society, and the planet – you can see they’re much more resilient and stable.
Moussa: This crisis has made the flaws in the system apparent, especially because this is global. During CPHFW in late January, we started talking to businesses that already didn’t know if they could get goods home from China.
“So many businesses are going straight for one particular business model. They’re so dependent on one production method, one country of production, or one material. Mostly, they’re in countries very far away from the home market.”
Everything is so determined which makes it very weak. What we’re talking about and working with is mapping out the entire structure of the business’s supply chain, assets, and values, and reconfiguring it and spreading it out to future proof and make it safer – by spreading out the risk.
Frederik: It’s not only about the distance: a lot of companies are big in Asian markets and produce in Asia, but the structure they’ve set up still requires them to ship everything to their main offices or a sourcing and distribution point in Europe, to then ship it back to Asia.
One of the things we’ve talked about in terms of sustainability is to bridge that gap. Is there any reason to ship everything from China to Sweden and then back to China again? There isn’t. But the conventional logic says you have production in one country and distribution in another. Because of this crisis, it might become clear that the benefits of stopping this practice go far beyond sustainability goals.
How companies stick to sustainability goals during crises is one thing, but trying to act sustainably as a consumer can feel impossible when you’re dealing with stress, anxiety, and a restriction of freedom. Consumerism is often lauded as a virtue in America, where the population is encouraged to spend after a crisis – Bush famously encouraged families to take to Disney World after 911.
It’s a concept that was really introduced in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Shocks or disasters, Klein explains, happen frequently enough that governments and business elites realized they needed to find a way to exploit them in order to maintain the status quo, and their own privilege. This, Klein says, is because during times of extreme economic distress, when it becomes clear that our institutions are failing us, people naturally look for more progressive solutions, a way to ensure a common good. Governments typically evoke “disaster capitalism” in the aftermath of a shock, like calculated, free-market “solutions” to crises that exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities and place emphasis on rebuilding a consumerist economy.
It feeds into the pervasive idea that the responsibility of kickstarting the economy sits with the public consuming on mass. This can feel at odds with sustainability goals that require us to consume less, but how can we marry these two during a state of chaos?
Moussa: It’s difficult for a government to ask everyone to spend money when so many have lost their jobs. Yet so many small businesses have asked us to, and a lot of us have done so. We’ve spent a lot of money actually, paying way more than we usually do for groceries from small farms and restaurants, for locally produced clothes, or organic beauty brands. It’s not that we’re just sitting on our money, it’s just that we’re consuming differently.
Frederik: [With personal sustainability goals] people spend the same amount of money, just on different things. Fewer things, because they’re more expensive, but the breakdown of their money will be put into different places, different people’s lives, different economies, and won’t be sifted off to a tax haven somewhere, with no societal benefits.
“In order to get an economy that is based on consumption working again, there needs to be consumption – a lot of it. Right now it would be difficult, in Europe at least, for politicians to encourage people to hedonistically consume because we’ve all just discussed climate actions and new economic measures.”
The EU has released a huge strategy on a circular economy for the entire eurozone. We’ve talked about it locally, nationally, regionally – it would ring false to go out and argue for mindless consumption.
It would be smart to use this crisis to boost a circular economy. The strategies are there, the ambitions are there, and even some of the very concrete plans like the EU’s circular transition have already been created. There are options. There are plenty of ways to learn from this.
Exploitation and value changes
“The lockdown has highlighted a few things: Firstly, that we start to realize what actually has value for us. It’s not roaming around stores buying things, it’s actually being with friends, family, seeing the people we’re not allowed to see right now.
Secondly, we’re rethinking what ‘work’ means. We worked from 9 am – 5 pm in the office together recently and afterward we were completely exhausted. We were looking at each other and we were like: ‘Who invented these working hours? 8 hours a day? Are you ridiculous? How did we ever cope?’”
We always consider everything in terms of what’s good for business – which usually means what’s good for the owner. What would happen if we start making those decisions based on what would be good for humans instead?
Frederik: This focus on human cost is important in terms of creating more sustainability.
“The political responses to this health crisis have been interesting to look at because that’s where you see this particular discussion: what are the main concerns? Is it the economy or the broader health of the population? If we continue with the current focus on human health, where we’ve been happy to put everything else aside in order to fix this crisis, we can rebuild the economy around this sentiment and create something that is much more stable.”
There’s been a lot of exposure to the different ways companies have acted during this time. Many of us are looking for meaning during this moment in history, this cultural shift could eventually end up reflected in what we expect of businesses.
The impact of this virus on archaic production cycles has been eye-opening. As companies canceled orders on mass, garment workers in the poorest parts of the world suddenly found themselves without orders to fill and without financial support from the government. When there is an unexpected halt in manufacturing, it is the most vulnerable, lowest paid people in the fashion supply chain that feel the worst effects – COVID-19 kills but so does poverty. This humanitarian crisis has reignited discussions around the link between consumption and economic development, and the need for transparency within fashion.
Frederik: This is a conversation we often have within sustainable development. How do we ensure that creating better products and buying less doesn’t have a huge negative effect on the places where those products are made?
We can see from the numbers surrounding the UN work on sustainability that the economic model we’re using to create growth in many parts of the world is no longer creating the social development we’re looking for. Throughout the 20th century it has done so, but it isn’t anymore.
When there’s a lack of production in factories where cheap labor is being taken advantage of, it looks as if there’s a direct relationship [between canceled orders and economic hardship in production countries]. The danger right now is to make that quick connection and say that we should definitely continue producing as much as humanly possible and consume as much in order to help countries where the social system isn’t working. But it’s a flawed argument.
“No matter what the world looks like when we get out on the other side, we need to consume less.”
Big businesses are being highly criticized for not wanting to pay rent or for letting go of employees, while still taking out massive amounts of money every year to their business owners. People are starting to ask how does that correlate? How can you make billions last year but suddenly have to let go of hundreds people? That’s exploitation.
It’s becoming apparent, but that conversation must include the exploitation of those in the production countries because we’re still not talking about them.
Most of these companies, especially in the lifestyle industry, don’t own their production. They place orders and have longtime collaborations, but they don’t have any responsibility for them. This was clear after the Dhaka garment factory collapse in 2013 that killed 1,134 people. The big corporations still haven’t taken accountability for that. There’s a way of using this crisis to visualize some of these structures so that we can change them.
Frederik: It’s impossible for anybody to have a full view of all this system, which in itself isn’t a problem, providing everybody knows what they’re doing and taking care of each other. But right now we’re not. We’re just putting risk on people further down the supply chain and bringing profits up to the top.
“We need to rebuild anyway, so we might as well rebuild in a way that benefits more people.”
What will the fashion industry look like post COVID?
Frederik: A lot of companies will return to something close to normal because that’s how the company was set up. But the fatigue that has been showing for many years, in terms of the institutions and production cycles, has been given more momentum. From design students within fashion education saying I don’t want to work in this industry, to very high profile designers saying the same thing and leaving companies. It’s across the board.
After that initial return, it will be difficult to go back to something that insists on frivolity and cheap luxury. Consumers will be more conscious and looking for meaning which will create the impetus for companies to produce in a better way.
“In terms of the presentation of collections, there will be a shift. One of the things that we really believe in is that these institutions (Fashion Weeks) can stand for something else. As social and symbolic centers, they’re still necessary, but they don’t need to just be the arenas for consumption and marketing, they can be a lot of other things for the industry – culturally and socially.”
Moussa: There’s a lot of potential now for medium-sized fashion companies in Scandinavia to really change. These are the ones that are following a traditional growth logic but are still relatively small – maybe they have 50-200 employees – so they’re able to experiment with different types of risk management and build a resilience, which is what we need right now.
“As soon as people get back into the office, they’ll be reflecting on what just happened and trying to get the wheels turning because they need some sort of flow of economy – that’s understandable, that’s for tomorrow. But what happens the day after that?”
We now have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild a fairer, more sustainable system, that benefits and protects society as a whole. COVID-19 has marked the beginning of the end, but whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to us.