Though sustainability and ethics fell under the radar at the start of the Covid-19 crisis as many retailers struggled to survive, more enlightened players realised it was an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in an area that would soon return to the top of consumers’ agendas. Those leading the way will be able to reach a new, more sustainability-conscious audience, as well as helping to set standards for the sector.
Covid-19 has had a vast impact on consumers’ purchasing habits, providing an opportunity to reshape the retail model to be more environmentally and ethically sustainable, with many shoppers now used to buying less. The effects of the current model of fashion were revealed when a number of major international players such as C&A, Arcadia and TJX cancelled and refused to pay for orders that were completed or in progress, having significant financial implications for suppliers and garment workers in less developed countries.
The repercussions of fast fashion also hit closer to home, sparking calls for greater transparency in the industry, with allegations of the Boohoo Group’s suppliers failing to pay factory workers in Leicester the minimum wage. This is a long-term issue due to the opacity of supply chains, especially when outsourcing, but came to the fore due the factories’ potential links to the local outbreak of Covid-19.
Fashion brands have reacted to the awareness of poor ethics that grew during the Covid-19 crisis, with many retailers bowing to consumer pressure to pay for completed, yet cancelled, orders such as Inditex, Nike and Next; and Asos restating its five minimum requirements for third-party brands, such as having an Ethical Trade Policy implemented across their supply chain and having transparency of ‘Tier 1’ factories, after removing Boohoo products from sale.
Though retailer-driven action is important to help consumers make more sustainable and ethical choices, ultimately if the model of fashion does not change, the demand for low-cost fast fashion will still prevail.
Sustainability and ethics will return to the top of the agenda as many consumers are increasingly concerned about these issues, even those who purchase from fast fashion brands. However, many shoppers want, and are used to, the attributes of fast fashion – newness, convenience and affordable prices. These elements have to be addressed by retailers attempting to make their operations more sustainable and ethical.
Some retailers have taken actions based on the opportunity to capitalise upon the demand for change, making more sustainable choices easier for consumers to take. For instance, Selfridges launched Project Earth in August, a scheme featuring resale, rental, refill and repair services across its fashion and beauty departments, including a second hand pop-up shop in partnership with Oxfam for Second Hand September. This benefits Selfridges by widening the reach of its premium fashion offer, and sets a precedent for other players to enhance their sustainability credentials.
H&M has long been a pioneer in introducing sustainability initiatives, such as its Conscious Collection, garment recycling and its recently announced resale platform for Cos, proving that retailers can combine consumers’ appetite for newness with increased sustainability.