ASKET’s co-founder, August Bard-Bringéus shares how the global pandemic could be an opportunity to reset and build new ways of operating within the apparel industry
With the global pandemic, putting lives and economies at risk, the world has mobilized with a sense of urgency that hasn’t been seen in 70 years. What many of us enjoyed as everyday human rights; travel, social contact, leisure, have been put on hold almost overnight. Governments are ramming through unparalleled legislation to support financial aid. While companies are scanning their value chains for vulnerabilities at hyper-speed.
Above anything what the lockdown has shown is our remarkable ability to unite, to act and to adapt in the face of an unquestionable threat. But as we make decisions to protect citizens and kick start economies, we must lift our gaze to a post-pandemic world, acknowledging that the decisions we make now will shape the future world we live in. In the fashion industry, we can’t afford to fall back on the consumption logic that has dominated, rather we must take this opportunity to emerge stronger: ethically and financially.
At the heart of the fashion industry are two systemic defects; designed obsolescence and constant growth. These concepts have for decades led to a fashion industry that feeds an insatiable appetite for new but with very little regard paid to the unfathomable amounts of pollution and exploitation within its supply chain. In a dark turn of events, now it is these same factors that are exposing the vulnerability of the demand side, and as a consequence, that of its designers: the fashion companies.
Seasonal collections epitomize the designed obsolescence that exists within the fashion industry. What seems like a harmless guise to switch from your winter to your spring wardrobe, has become a tactic to convince the consumer to buy something they don’t actually need. The reality is that in order for the industry to continue to thrive, it must render what we already own irrelevant — that’s just fashion. In an era of fast fashion and social media we do this in ever shorter, ever faster trend cycles. But the faster we create consumer need, the shorter the yield of the product. And what the pandemic has highlighted is the huge inventory risk that carries with it.
In the face of demand grinding to a halt, the Inditex group reported having to write off inventory worth 300m euros, after just two weeks of uncertainty. This brings to light the grossly short shelf-life of fast fashion, shorter than a carton of milk if we’re frank. Financial impact aside, the true tragedy is that the resources gone into creating these garments, will now fall to waste.
But short shelf life with its associated inventory risk isn’t new to fashion — constant sales are testament to this. So in a bid to spur even further growth while carrying the deadweight of devalued inventory and constant discounting, the industry needs high margins — often on already low priced goods. So in the past 30 years we’ve seen major brands shift to sourcing manufactures on the sole parameter of cost. In order to offer the most competitive prices these manufacturing facilities cut corners by compromising on working conditions and environmental responsibilities. So long as the first question remains the cost of goods, rather than asking the true cost, the manufacturing side has no margin to evolve.
Now that consumption has ground to a halt and the trend cycle is out of balance, the fashion industry is grappling with how to get out of the web it’s entangled itself in. Wholesalers have canceled summer orders on brands. Brands are stuck with overstock and are putting their collections on sale the moment it hits the shelf. Manufacturers’ production schedules have evaporated. Workers have been made expendable. And garments are at risk of ending up in landfills and incinerators.
The pandemic has unraveled the fickle nature of fashion in a matter of days. Around 114 billion items of clothing were set to be produced this year, a number that is now in free-fall as we cannot leave our homes to shop, and perhaps, for the first time, realize that we need not pack our wardrobes with suitcases of new clothing every year. This breakdown is brutal, and as always, it hits those who are already exposed the hardest. Yet this crisis could be the inflection point to reshape the industry. An opportunity to create something new. Something better.
We envisage a system where we acknowledge the true cost of clothing, and abandon the strive for arbitrage based on exploitation. Instead we call on brands to pay fair wages, endorse collective bargaining, social security and cleaner production. Then factories and workers alike will be in better shape to cope with temporary loss of business, dampening not only effects on individual distress but also that of local economies. It is the purpose of a good economy to build a buffer for more austere times. But historically, this buffer has amassed only on one side of the value chain.
The effect would, of course, be a higher cost of goods to the brands. And as we can’t expect consumers to absorb the increased price alone, the brands would need to reduce their inventory risk, to cope with lower margins from the start. This would require brands to pivot from a fast to a more considered model, slowing down the seasonal calendar and abandoning the concept of constant renewal and replacement. As a result, garments would stay relevant for longer, with it prolonging their lifetime — and thus increasing both their financial value and consumer appreciation. Volumes won’t be what they were. Growth won’t pick up at the same pace. But the value created would be higher. The discounting less necessary, waste reduced — and the risk and reward distributed evenly across the entire value chain.
A consumer mindset that was already in the cradle of awakening, now has time to reflect and see how superficial the industry is. We were already seeing a comeback of individuals that appreciate what they own, feeling pride in where it came from and keeping it for longer. Now, when the importance of health, family and community has been reinvigorated, there is an opportunity like never before to resist, not to succumb to shortsighted growth and material satisfaction but to ready ourselves for real change.