The fashion industry has been steadily growing through generations. It has become one of the most lucrative markets globally, having a value of $1.5 trillion. However, the COVID-19 global pandemic gave the industry a break never been before, and it's changing the shape of what the fashion sector will look like in the future.
Over the past year, multiple retailers have been forced to close their doors, and many industry leaders have gone into administration. With consumers being stuck at home with nowhere to go, clothesand textile sales have also dipped.
Some factories and supply chains have also been impacted, with many shutting down or working at a reduced capacity. Of course, this has been challenging for many business owners and retail workers whose jobs and livelihoods are uncertain.
However, the silver lining is that the entire industry was allowed to pause and take a breather, for perhaps the first time in history. This time for reflection has pushed fashion into a new era: the era of sustainability.
Impact of the Fashion Industry as it Stands
Before we delve into the future of the fashion industry, we must know where it stands today. And, unfortunately, from an environmental standpoint, it's not looking good. The apparel industry is thought to be one of the biggest polluters in the world. For a single pair of jeans to be manufactured, it required around 7,500 liters of water. To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent of how much an average person would drink over seven years. Over a year, this equates to 93 billion cubic liters of water, enough to sustain over five million people.
Wastewater is not the only environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. The various chemicals used in the manufacturing of synthetic fibers are pouring into our oceans and ecosystems.
Annual carbon emissions for the industry are more than the amount of CO2 released from all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Besides, 0.5 million tons of microplastics released from washing synthetic textiles are being dumped into our seas every year.
A large chunk of this blame can be pinned on the fast fashion industry. Retailers have reduced the quality of their products and sell them at a more affordable price, which has seen garment production double between the years 2000 and 2014. This encourages consumers to throw out the old and purchase new clothing more regularly.
The environmental impact worsened, but there is also a question on how ethical the fast fashion industry is and its socioeconomic impact around the world.
From Linear Fashion Models to a Circular Economy
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion industry is looking to become more sustainable to adopt a circular economy.
At present, the sector mainly utilizes a linear model – clothes are produced, bought, worn, and then chucked.
Each item of clothing has a direct and straightforward short-term lifecycle. However, moving to a circular model focuses more on recycling and repurposing old clothing, continuing the lifecycle of the materials beyond what we have previously seen.
Many big brands back this movement, with front-runners including technology giant Apple, multi-national clothing company H&M, and leading sportswear retailer Nike.
Apple, for example, offers refurbishments for all old Apple Watch devices, encouraging consumers to mend the product before shopping for the latest model. If the device is too old, Apple promises to recycle the product for you, again part of the idealistic circular economy.
Similarly, Nike collects old footwear from their customers and uses the materials to create new eco-friendly shoes.
H&M is somewhat of a more surprising addition to this list of leading contenders. The company's business model is focused on fast fashion, the main contributor to the industry's environmental impact. However, it is proof that even fast fashion businesses can jump on board with this latest trend, and H&M has written a pledge to make a climate-positive change as part of their overarching business model.
They too offer to recycle customer's old garments so that the textiles can be reused and transformed into new products. Alongside this, H&M has also released a "Conscious" sustainable fashion range and rewards customers for purchasing from this collection.
By 2030, there is also the hope that 100% of all of their garments will be made from recycled textiles.
COVID-19, the Driver of Change
Climate change has been a hot topic of debate within recent years, and there was a sizable shift towards a greener industry pre-pandemic.
However, while many companies became more aware of their environmental impact, the COVID-19 pandemic was the final shove. It was the "wake-up call" for many businesses and consumers and the catalyst that pushed them to rethink their responsibilities, choices, and actions.
For one, the break in the industry gave business owners time that they didn't previously have to explore new solutions. Thoughts that were once just ideas now had the chance to be developed and put into play.
The disruptions to supply chains have also forced brands to get in touch with their partners and manufacturers. Knowing where their goods are being made, the industry can become more resilient and better track their waste and overproduction.
In many cases, smaller businesses have also switched to local suppliers thanks to COVID-19 breaking international supply chains.
Long story short, the pandemic allowed the fashion industry to review its production and sales processes, finding both gaps and solutions.
These innovative and more sustainable practices are better for our planet and essential for apparel companies to survive in a post-pandemic world. Sadly, many within the industry are fighting for survival.
Rethinking and refocusing on sustainability is in line with current consumer trends and can help to boost sales when shopping returns to normal.
More money from investors is also being offered to greener businesses seen as "the future." Making such adjustments also helps the apparel industry become more robust and better at dealing with unexpected changes.
If there is one benefit of COVID, the fashion industry is now becoming greener.