The US apparel industry faces many problems these days – not least of which are a potentially turbulent transition to the Biden Administration and the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. By industry consultant Robert Antoshak, and Fashion+Sustainability advisor Thomasine Dolan Dow.
As Americans, we’re concerned that the presidential transition will be rocky. Refusing to accept the election results, Trump will stall and obfuscate, as will many of his supporters in the Republican Party, insisting that voting fraud undermines the election results.
Indeed, as newly re-elected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “If any major irregularities occurred this time of a magnitude that would affect the outcome, then every single American should want them brought to light.” He continued: “The president has every right to look into allegations and to request recounts under the law.” But these are misleading comments as votes remaining to be counted or even contested ballots will not affect the election outcome.
Biden won the election, while Trump creates mischief
The Biden/Harris ticket won. But that won’t stop Trump. Under a curious quirk in the American Constitution, after a presidential election, the winner takes office on January 20th of the following year. The Constitution’s framers believed that a transition period from the election on 3 November until 20 January was necessary to ensure the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.
However, this is also a period when mischief – or worse – can occur. And since the vote on 3 November, Trump has embarked on a contentious transfer of power. Now neither of us believe he will be carried off in cuffs come 20 January, but between now and then, we’ll have to hang on. It’s hard to imagine him going quietly into the night. And who knows how he’ll behave once leaving office? Or how will he engage his supporters?
Air thick with uncertainty
But that’s the point: uncertainty will remain. The air will be thick with it. Biden will have to reassure an already anxious nation that his transition is going well despite Trump’s efforts to discredit the election and undermine the transition process.
So, we’re in a void of sorts. Moreover, the pandemic rages while the economy remains uneven. The political jostling only adds to the uncertainty. And the electorate is anxious and nervous about the future; a rocky presidential transition will only increase public anxiety.
“Is this a time to go out shopping? Many Americans are struggling to pay their rents, mortgages and student loans. Credit card debt is piling up. The stimulus money ran out long ago, and there is no hint that another boost from the Federal government will happen before year-end”
So, is this a time to go out shopping? That’s the critical question for our industry as we enter the holiday season. Will consumers turn out? Is there enough pent-up demand to make this a strong holiday season?
Many Americans are struggling to pay their rents, mortgages and student loans. Credit card debt is piling up. The stimulus money ran out long ago, and there is no hint that another boost from the Federal government will happen before year-end. What is the emotional temperature of Americans right now?
The good news is that businesses are slowly starting to hire or bring furloughed employees back to work. The bad news is that we are on the verge of a massive coronavirus spike, which could lead to closures again if we don’t use great prudence with our public interactions.
Stores will heavily discount their products this holiday season. After all, many retailers are in dire financial straits, and there’s unsold inventory built up from before the coronavirus outbreak. For the most part, the luxury market has held its own and will likely continue to do so. Still, other segments of the apparel market remain under pressure; the tangled cobweb-like global supply chain has wreaked havoc on the rest of the industry.
Of course, we in the apparel industry did this to ourselves. We built an opaque, hard to track, tentacled behemoth reaching all over the globe. Why, you may ask? Because low retail prices equate to more sales! The more you make, the cheaper it gets; a cycle of over-production, the very essence of fast fashion.
So, this is the challenge of our times: too much capacity. Fed by fast fashion, the industry seemingly ploughed into a wall with the outbreak of the pandemic. Bloodied, what should the industry do? Is 2020 the dose of medicine needed to get our house in order?
Fashion must decouple volume from value
The fashion industry is ripe for structural change and practices, including (but not limited to) environmental safeguards, sustainable materials, closer and transparent supply chains, safe and fair working conditions, smaller production runs, and tighter inventories.
A slower, more thoughtful fashion pipeline will likely yield high creativity and innovation. We’ve already seen incredible designs emerge this year, ranging from digital tracking platforms to sustainable plant-based materials. If the apparel industry does adopt sustainable measures, consumers are likely to see a price increase. But in the meantime, this shutdown has proved we can all live with a little less. Food and health safety continue to be the priorities for most families.
“We remain in a trade war with China that will likely continue with a Biden presidency. Tariffs will make imports more expensive, with those costs passed on to consumers”
Two things are still in play, however. First, the pandemic is still here and will be here through the spring of 2021. Second, we remain in a trade war with China that will likely continue with a Biden presidency. Tariffs will make imports more expensive, with those costs passed on to consumers.
Combined, this may be just the thing to bring manufacturing closer to home. We see more and more research telling us that consumers would prefer to purchase “Made in the USA” and are willing to pay quite a bit more for it; this wasn’t always the case. But the shutdown has pushed the pause button and given us all time to think.
Has the pandemic re-focused our values? Have we learned we can live with less? We would argue, yes. Consumers can live with less, and can re-learn how to shop. The fashion adage “less is more” feels an appropriate remedy.
Until the pandemic is under control, the apparel industry cannot thrive as it did in the past. And perhaps it shouldn’t. The past 40 years have seen a dramatic uptick in production and consumption, creating an unsustainable downturn in retail prices.
For the sake of low prices, brands stopped valuing their suppliers (think farmers, spinners, weavers and garment makers), and that trickles down to a consumer who ultimately feels ‘If I can buy jeans for $20, then that must be what they’re worth.’ To quote the outgoing, Twitter-prone president: “SAD.”
And it’s not just the pandemic that has caught fashion on its back foot. Weather-related disasters from climate change have left plenty of companies scrambling to move orders elsewhere or cancel them. Shoddy infrastructure in manufacturing hotspots has resulted in thousands of deaths and broken communities unable to support themselves.
Out of necessity, many online chats, webinars, and other virtual gatherings have sprouted up seemingly overnight during the pandemic. Still, they have done little to address the fundamental problems facing the industry. It’s like being trapped on some cable news programme forever doomed to endure the pontification of the same few talking heads over and over again – while missing the point of the conversation in the first place.
“Virtual gatherings are little more than echo chambers retreading the same tropes over and over again: transparency, recycling infrastructure, and circular design”
Often these virtual gatherings are little more than echo chambers retreading the same tropes over and over again – typically with the same speakers, too. For instance, everyone addresses the need for transparency, recycling infrastructure, and circular design. Still, we won’t know for some time if CEOs are green-lighting this kind of change and, if so, to what degree.
Some brands have made bold proclamations on setting sustainability goals for 2025, 2030 and beyond. Great! But why haven’t we seen many concrete public statements about slowing down the fashion calendar, reducing volume, and by the way, what is the real cost of clothing in 2021?
In our case, we’re an industry built for a time that doesn’t exist anymore. All the online chats and webinars fundamentally miss that. Some companies will fight to return to the status quo, while others will break out and try new things, anything to bring in shoppers. Meanwhile, the most sustainable thing we can do is simple: buy less.
Reestablishing connections with customers
We’ve touched on politics, economics, and the global pandemic – all serious challenges for our industry. Moreover, the fast-fashion model of apparel production and consumption faces even fiercer headwinds from a weakened and distracted consumer. And, make no mistake, consumer attitudes are changing.
Consequently, brands that speak to customers most authentically right now will likely come out stronger in the long run, particularly when the pandemic has run its course. Many brands found their voice this year as they confronted the shortcomings of previous business practices that have been in plain sight all along, only never acted upon – it cost too much.
With many consumers focused on necessity purchases right now, they need to feel good about what they’re buying and from whom they’re buying. Consumers are looking for transparency and a story that they can believe. And be confident that their clothes are sustainable. Yeah, the health of the Earth matters a lot these days.
What’s needed now more than ever are systemic changes in how and where our industry does business. Otherwise, we will continue to drip water on fires that should have never started in the first place.