Fashion must speed up if it is to be sustainable

Marketing consultant Valerie Rice says fashion needs to move faster if it is to build a sustainable retail future. A Guardian headline in early April highlighted the increasingly negative impact of consumers’ insatiable appetite for fast fashion; Primark and Matalan among retailers allegedly cancelling £2.4bn orders in “catastrophic” move for Bangladesh.

Rice says it brought home the human, and environmental consequence of fast fashion in a Covid-19 world with potentially industry changing implications. If ever there was a time when some retailers needed to question what they had created, it was now. More than a million Bangladeshi garment workers were sent home without pay or lost their jobs.

It followed on from the Bangladeshi & Garment Manufactures Exporters Association (GMEA) reporting that Western clothing brands had cancelled or suspended £2.4bn of existing orders in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As major brands took the action to minimise losses, one in four Bangladeshi  garment workers lost their jobs or were furloughed without pay.


Others, such as M&S, Tesco and Zara, recognising the serious impact and likely reputational damage of their potential action, said they would honour existing arrangements and orders. Primark have also since moved to guarantee workers’ pay. Some well-known retail brands may need to question their consumer propositions, asking are they still appropriate today?

The debate is likely to focus on how we have ended up where cheap fashion has resulted in some consumers valuing items so little that they are merely for single wear. Meanwhile, fabrics are often not sustainably sourced and for some retailers, their ranges are only sold in-store as there is not enough margin on their ranges to deliver an e-commerce solution.

Perhaps the real question is: how sustainable, either environmentally or reputationally, is this strategy? Particularly when fashion retailers have vulnerable supply chain risks that the moment something significant happens, they take action that strikes at the core of society, creating a greater human catastrophe on top of a frightening pandemic.


It has been too easy for many people to argue that affordable and often single-use fashion was kosher. Brands pointed to small efforts such as ‘eco cotton’ as an example of how they were taking steps in the right direction. However, in the past year, more brand owners have emphasised the significant environmental and human impact of the industry.

In the context of a new Covid-19 reality, there is growing evidence that fragile supply chains, fraught retail environments and increasingly eco aware consumers will impact on fashion in new and different ways. The shift by consumers to placing greater value on a long term investment, to re-using, to re-cycling, to vintage has been moving at pace.

Green shoots have appeared. Liberty in London created a vintage section, retailing ‘pre-loved’ pieces from Chanel and other designers. Pre-loved online retailers such as Vestiare Collective showed there was a global market for investment pieces.  This year’s men’s fashion week in Milan showed the serious efforts top brands are making to build more sustainable businesses with an ethos that comes through in their ranges; it is not just an aspiration.

Rice points to Marni, the Italian clothing and accessory brand, focused on creating sustainable products, while sourcing locally. Marni’s latest collection is constructed from a combination of pre-used and dead stock fabrics. Their creative director, Francesco Risso, is a strong voice about the need to support lives in the country where the people are employed.

Prada has ensured 90 per cent of its menswear range is now sustainable, creating new fabrics such as Econyl ® (pictured above). The fabric is made from re-cycling and purifying plastic waste collected from oceans, fishing nets and textile fibre waste. The yarn can be recycled indefinitely with no loss in quality. Through the education of students in countries like China, Prada is creating lessons on how to use materials and the circular economy.


As we evolve through this pandemic, many things that we accepted in everyday commerce have been thrown into question. What we felt was perhaps wrong, but we continued to buy into, has now been highlighted as our chance to make right. Retail propositions are starting to re-invent themselves and consumers will hopefully use their conscience to make better choices and to push the retail brands that they love to make more sustainable decisions.

While luxury products are not affordable for everyone, more mainstream retail brands will need to make greater efforts in their sourcing, their proposition and their solutions, to avoid imposing financial ruin on poorer countries during a pandemic. Brands that choose to ignore the changes accelerated by recent events may live to regret their inertia, Rice adds.



Valerie Rice is managing director at Valerie Rice & Associates




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