Sustainable fashion in the aftermath of Covid-19

Environmental degradation and human rights violations can no longer be the way of life. Something needs to change.
Published July 29, 2020

Covid-19 has dealt a massive blow to most industries — fashion and textile being no exception. As countries continue to experiment with lockdowns and the demand for apparel and textiles shrinks, several major international retailers such as Primark and Forever 21 have taken the decision to postpone or cancel orders. In some cases, they have even refused to pay for clothing which had already been manufactured. For a country like Pakistan, which relies on a large chunk of its exports being from the apparel and textile sector, the effects of cancelled and delayed payments can be and have been devastating. Thousands of garment factory workers will be laid off, with most having to return to their hometowns empty-handed and without hope of immediate employment.

This is a grim reality, but in some ways one could see this coming. The fashion industry has been on a trajectory of human rights violations and environmental degradation for quite some time now; the Covid-19 crisis has only made it more obvious, and brought the gross inequalities that persist in the labour market to the forefront.

The global fashion industry is the second highest user of water worldwide, generating 20 per cent of global water waste and is responsible for 8.1 per cent of greenhouse gases produced annually. That’s a lot of damage, especially at a time when scientists and activists world over are doing their best to avert the impending climate crisis.

So now that we can no longer feign ignorance, what’s the best way forward?

The answer may lie in sustainability.

According to Kate Heiny, Director for Sustainability at Zalando SE, nine out of 10 Generation Z consumers believe that companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues.

"We see a clear link between sustainability and continued commercial success. Our sustainability ambitions will help us stay ahead of customer demand after this crisis caused by the coronavirus. Both our current and future customer base are calling for more sustainable choices in fashion."

What is sustainable fashion?

While there is no exact definition for the term 'sustainable fashion', it is widely believed to be an amalgamation of environmental, social and financial integrity.

Most businesses put profits at the forefront of their strategy at the cost of human and environmental rights, but sustainable business models consider the profits, people, and planet to be equally important. Special attention is paid towards the quality and longevity of the garments produced, as well as towards the people who are a part of producing it. In addition, a thorough check and balance is placed throughout all stages of the supply chain, including outsourced vendors.

Local perspective

"We work as a community, so I don't quote or dictate the prices," says Waqar J. Khan of Nasheman — a local sustainable fashion brand.

"We explain the kind of work we require, and the artisans then quote us a timeline and a price. We plan the rest accordingly."

Before deciding to work with the artisans, Waqar spent a whole week in their village talking to them about how they work as well as their way of life. And as he was speaking to me, Waqar expressed the importance of identifying and understanding not only the strengths of a particular community of artisans, but also its limitations.

"We need to understand that artisans often reside in places with a lack of modern facilities, and have developed their own systems for working efficiently. Our job is to build a partnership based on trust and respect, which ends up being mutually beneficial."

Amneh Shaikh of Polly and Other Stories shares a touching anecdote to emphasise the importance of treating employees as the unique individuals that they are, rather than a means to an end.

"I met Seher* around seven years ago, while working for a project where she used to do handicraft work for her neighbours and occasionally for a factory near her home. When she joined our project, the elders in her community branded her as a 'bad' woman for working outside the house. She persisted nevertheless. Fast forward to now, her daughter is a teacher, she herself runs a business and brings work for 25 other women in her community. It is a transformative story.

Now that I meet her, she says my name is Seher and I am a leader. It makes me want to cry because I remember seven years ago when I met her she used to say 'baaji, I can’t do this, and this, and not even that'. Now she doesn’t only believe that she can do all the things she was once afraid she couldn't, she believes she can lead others to do them too. That’s how far long-term commitment takes you."

A change of pace

Pakistan is home to centuries old craft techniques and a rich cultural heritage; this combined with its significant artisan base can make it a hub for slow and sustainable fashion. However, we still see our local high-street brands failing to support or respect our craftsmen.

The success of international fast fashion brands such as Zara and H&M has turned the local fashion industry on its head in the past decade. Instead of cultivating our strengths, we have joined the race of over-consumption and disposability. Consequently, our artisans end up as collateral damage in the war between craftsmanship and consumerism.

The irony is that while we chase the success of international fast fashion brands, these same brands are now adopting a more sustainable direction.

H&M plans to transition to 100% sustainable cotton by 2020, according to its 2018 annual report. Similarly, Zara has pledged to create collections out of 100% sustainable cottons and linens and 100% recycled polyester, with zero landfill waste from its facilities.

Even luxury brands are becoming more conscious, with Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele taking to his instagram to announce that they will be doing two shows per year rather than five. And Michele is not the only one.

In his open letter to fashion-industry trade journal WWD, Giorgio Armani urges us to "slow everything down, to realign everything, to draw a more authentic and true horizon. No more spectacularisation, no more waste."

He further says that, "The moment we are going through is turbulent, but it offers us the unique opportunity to fix what is wrong, to remove the superfluous, to find a more human dimension…"

The ground reality

Only time will tell if changes in the international fashion fraternity are motivated by authenticity and the greater good or if it’s just prudent decision-making based on consumer trends and the predicted recession.

But something needs to change.

Ideally, every fashion brand would produce eco-friendly garments made by people who are treated with respect and paid fair wages. However, the prices of ethically produced garments often end up being too steep for the average consumer.

The 2019 Nosto Sustainability in Fashion Retail survey found that "over half (52%) of consumers in the UK and US want the fashion industry to become more sustainable, with calls for reduced packaging and fair pay for workers among their top demands. But only 29% of these consumers say they will pay more for sustainably-made versions of the same items."

In order for slow fashion to become part of the mainstream, the government as well as the local fashion industry will need to be part of this shift in strategy. Our brands need to do more than just make 'eco-friendly' bags once a year. If they want to be on the right side of history, they must develop sustainable policies that can be implemented across product development, supply chain, and human resource management.

Consumer is king

We are all aware that the old normal doesn’t exist anymore, and in its place we are left with crumbling older systems. This may be the perfect time to build a newer, better normal.

But will the local audience agree to it?

Waqar believes that internationally things have been changing since a while, and will continue to change.

"The local market will be slower," he says. "Local consumers don’t have much for entertainment other than shopping. If people stop buying less it will be due to the oncoming recession, rather than a shift towards sustainability."

Amaneh thinks along similar lines. She says that instead of four to five collections per season, brands will probably do less as due to the recession consumers will not have the capacity to buy so much.

"The market forces are going to force everybody to slow down," she adds.

Ultimately, every kind of progress takes time, and while Covid-19 has become a massive hindrance to our way of life, it has also forced us to rethink our priorities. It will take a thorough systematic change for the fledgling sustainable fashion industry in Pakistan to survive in the long run. Until then, it's up to us to decide if we are willing to pay the true cost of what we wear.