May 6, 2020

Beyond the pandemic, a new materialism awaits fashion

Could the current crisis have long-term impacts on fashion consumption behaviours and a notoriously volatile workforce across apparel supply chains?
Ola Bąkowska
Ola Bąkowska
Project Manager – Circle Textiles Programme
Ola Bąkowska

By Ola Bąkowska, with additional reporting by the Circle Textiles team

This blog is part of a series of reflections on covid-19 and the circular economy. For previous blogs in the series, please see here.

In light of the covid-19 pandemic, our Circle Textiles team has aligned to reflect on the impacts of the pandemic on the global apparel supply chain and the fashion industry as a whole. We also begin to ponder preliminary recommendations for the future — without being nostalgic about the past. One thing has become clear; ‘to be in it together’ has gained a whole new menu of meanings as we enter a ‘new normal’. In these times, everyone from citizens, to businesses and governments are working hard to stay afloat. This blog features in a series of Circle Economy’s reflections on the current pandemic.

Perhaps we can see the current lockdown as a simulation, a practice-run, for the kinds of fundamental changes — both personal, societal, industrial — that are needed to wean ourselves off the linear system and curb the climate crisis. A new materialism?

Disrupted consumer behaviour amid the covid-19 pandemic

Under the collective experience of the pandemic, consumer behaviours have shifted and the power of consumer spending has become increasingly influential. Ultimately, where consumers’ decided to spend their money and funnel their support will determine which businesses will make it into the next season.

Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort has predicted that (ultra) fast fashion and other linear business models that the apparel industry has largely relied on to deliver profit will at least temporarily struggle. As populations are forced to slow down under the ‘quarantine of consumption’ they will have to ‘learn to become self-sufficient and mindful’. Indeed, the current dynamics of e-commerce spending reflect a shift in priorities; safety, health and stay-at-home-hobbies are rising, while travel gear, apparel and accessories are in decline.

‘The state of shopping is a sign of the times’ Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Director at the New York Times, reminds us. She previously noted that during the Millennial generation defining September 11 crisis, ‘George W. Bush urged everyone to go shopping. At first it seemed silly. But what he was really saying was: Redistribute the wealth. Get the economy going again’. This idea of getting back to normal, or business as usual, is a vision of life-post-covid that many are holding on to. But importantly, Friedman reminds consumers that investing in a garment can be ‘a creative rescue line and a bet on the future’. With Gen Z and Millennials being widely recognised for often choosing brands with a purpose, sequential global crises might cause a further radicalisation of consumer priorities and send a clear message to brands on what future they bet on.

For consumers privileged enough to have an adequate safety net of resources, covid-19 marks a clear message that the way one redistributes that wealth affects communities around the world. Local buying initiatives are springing up globally, as it becomes clear that while many supermarkets and chains have their businesses secured, markets, cafes and smaller brands are truly struggling.

Consumption behaviours are changing. Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Global campaigns, such as Slow Fashion Season invite consumers who wish to ‘do better’ to join the commitment of making only conscious fashion choices.

In the future, we truly hope to see the responsible consumption patterns enforced, more ‘common sense’ shopping decisions driven by real priorities and quality. In practice this could mean boosting the recommerce sector or choosing products that embody purpose, from brands that live the change they preach instead of communicating their green ambitions amid the mass production in a business as usual scenario.

Volatility of the workforce

The covid-19 pandemic has inevitably exposed the human rights risks of global outsourced labour, which is preeminent in the apparel sector. It has further strengthened the demand that EU Member States and businesses have a joint responsibility for addressing them.

With many retailers closing, sales floor employees — especially those with zero hour contracts — are finding their rights compromised. Many took to social media to demand safety measures and store closures — but when implemented, many of these employees have been left without salary. Similarly, warehouse workers, who are in high demand at the moment, are out there asking for their rights to safe employment to be provided during the pandemic.

The crisis has also disrupted the rhythm of orders, causing cancellations and workers in manufacturing countries being laid off or unpaid. Dynamic purchase fluctuation might further increase the vulnerability of the factory workforce and the need for seasonal or migrant workers, who even outside the current health crisis tend to have less regulated working relationships and are under greater risk of modern slavery.

Garment workers demonstrating in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo via Clean Clothes Campaign


We witnessed garment export earnings in the first week of April falling by 77.76% to $129,40 million compared to the corresponding week of the last year in Bangladesh, the world second largest garment manufacturer after China. There, many workers have been without pay since February and risk their own health by gathering to protest as they await their salaries, which are due under the regulation from the local labour ministry. In response to this dramatic situation, non-profit Remake has started an online petition calling brands and retailers to #payup for their orders made in Bangladesh. The campaign was established based on firsthand accounts from Kalpona Akter, a labor activist and the founder of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Mostafiz Uddin, owner of Denim Expert Ltd. in Bangladesh.

On top of the underpayment, covid-19 significantly impacts the lives and livelihoods of women and vulnerable groups, worsening the already existing social and gender inequalities, as exemplified by the report from UN Women Pakistan and the National Commission on the Status of Women.

Businesses, from self employed individuals to multinationals, are applying for bailouts as governments all around the world are developing support packages. While necessary in these times, the provision of public money cannot be a blank cheque as advocated by European Coalition for Corporate Justice and Extinction Rebellion. Instead, businesses could take greater responsibility over the health, safety and prosperity of workers around the world on whom they depend. Taking this responsibility means first complying with existing human and labour rights conventions and national laws, and secondly, regularly monitoring this to aim for decent, fair and prosperous workplace provisions for all in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda. Thirdly, it could mean treating supply chain partners as fellow innovators who can navigate in tandem with businesses towards the ‘new normal’. We believe cross supply chain collaboration and diverse multi stakeholder engagement is a key pathway towards implementing a circular economy on a grand scale in the industry.

Production Deadlock

‘Would we look at our wardrobes differently if we knew that there were no new materials being produced?’ Gwen Cunningham, our Circle Textiles Lead, asked this question at Beyond Green 2016, as a nod to a possible dystopian future that is now upon us.

Gwen Cunningham speaking at Beyond Green 2016

The covid-19 pandemic has left fashion brands with tonnes of SS 2020 collections gathering dust in shops, warehouses and factory floors. We are now witnessing widespread discounts, and expect merchandisers to move stock from market to market, carefully following consumer voices as they try to meet demand and minimise losses. In this linear economy scenario, the overstock can be sold to other retailers, rebranded, donated, or ultimately end up landfilled or incinerated.

Reflecting on the summer spring season that never happened, what comes into view is that piles of products designed and manufactured to serve the linear economy are not an easy asset to reprocess and approach as an input material for the circular economy. They are not easy to take apart, not made of mono materials and not adaptable to the new conditions. Trend-heavy SS 2020 collections might not meet the AW 2020 demand, while the seasonless and timeless garments are more likely predestined to slowly move into consumers’ wardrobes when the time is right.

As the pandemic unfolds, we envision brands and retailers to continue thoroughly assessing the stocks and material flows available. We hope they will pay equal attention to ones considered to be waste, as well as ones considered to be a resource, because the time is ripe to let go of these categories and tap into waste as a resource strategy.

Luckily, the current policy mindset is useful here, with the recently announced European Green Deal recognising that the circular economy is a key driver in transforming Europe’s economy. The Circular Economy Action Plan is a first of its kind document which provides a holistic approach towards transforming the economies and behaviours of EU member state citizens from linear to circular. This Action Plan spotlights the textiles industry as a top priority value chain that needs to undergo the circular transition. So, we predict that actors in the textile and apparel industry network will return from the crisis into a reality that asks for their thorough and focused action to comply with the up-and-coming regulations.

Mounting pressure on the end-of-use supply chain

As many may have noticed, decluttering is being heralded as a productive way to spend down-time while social distancing. However with many charity stores and brand-collection points temporarily closed and with citizens minimising their errands to the bare minimum, finding a ‘new home’ for these items is increasingly difficult.

Photo by Sarah Brown via Unsplash

Luckily, the municipal waste management systems operate as usual in many countries, yet the anecdotal evidence proves that fly tipping rates have increased, as many citizens declutter and refurbish under the lockdown, but wish to avoid an extra cost of waste collection. Furthermore, the processing of textiles is manual work, and many of these key players are also feeling the strain of social distancing measures, as well as the shrinking of their usual markets.

Research reveals that only 10% of collected rewearable textiles is sold on the Dutch second hand market. As the key markets for second hand export close their borders due to national lockdowns, or in certain cases, place restrictions on the import of used goods due to contamination fears, many collectors and sorters of textiles are finding themselves in a precarious and challenging situation.

The significance and severity of this global post-consumer waste stockpiling is emerging as we speak. Together with our partners, we are monitoring and assessing this situation closely and will address this in full in a later publication. Watch this space!

Time for a New Materialism?

We covet things we cannot have, whose volumes are in short supply or whose access is only granted to the chosen few. What is the most scarce is most valuable and ownership of that item implies an elite status.

Until now, we have defined and understood materialism as an excessive concern with material objects and comforts and a consequent rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values. But perhaps we need a new form of materialism, whereby we have an obsession and deep respect for the raw materials from which our products are made. As aforementioned, perhaps we can see this crisis as a simulation for the fundamental changes we need.

In light of the crisis that changed the way we live from day one, and with above mentioned deep respect and responsibility concepts in mind, we believe it is possible and necessary to establish resilient communities, both in business as in social terms.

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