Will fast fashion have a future post Covid-19?

“Fast fashion may well survive Covid-19, but it must change going forward. As the pandemic has forced the industry to slow down, fast fashion has an opportunity to reconstruct itself, moving to a ‘slow’ fashion model while prioritising workers’ rights and the environment.” Holly Barrow, Content Writer at the Immigration Advice Service and Printed Tape, asks whether the Covid-19 pandemic will finally get the fashion industry to change its ways.

An image of a garment factory in Bangladesh
An image of a garment factory in Bangladesh

Flickr: Tareq Salahuddin from Dhaka, Bangladesh 

Holly Barrow

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shake the globe, grinding nations and economies to a halt, it may seem impossible to view this period as anything other than a tragedy. 

The extent of lives lost and the collapse of economies worldwide are undeniably devastating. Thousands of citizens find themselves jobless and struggling to make ends meet while filled with uncertainty regarding the future. For this reason, it’s crucial that we do not downplay the traumatic repercussions of Covid-19. 

However, with all of this in mind, we can also observe some welcome changes, many of which activists across the globe have fought for decades to achieve. From recognising the invaluable and crucial work of those typically labelled ‘unskilled’, to seeing a desperately-needed reduction in global emissions, there are some definite positives amidst the chaos that we ought to maintain long after the pandemic becomes a distant memory. 

One industry currently being forced to reconsider its very essence is ‘fast fashion’. Gaining momentum in the early 2000s, fast fashion is symptomatic of the rise in instant gratification; it thrives on frequent and immediate consumption. Inspired by the most recent catwalk collections, fast fashion serves to replicate and chase trends and, in doing so, sacrifices quality for short-term relevancy in an attempt to keep up with constantly shifting consumer demands. What this inevitably means is that such low-quality, trend-based items are disposed of at an ever-increasing rate, failing to stand the test of time as newer trends take their place.

Damage keeps growing

It is no secret that this incessant consumption of fashion has a detrimental impact on the planet, from production to packaging. A 2019 report by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) found that the UK population buys more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, while a study by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that an estimated £140 million worth of clothing goes to landfill each year. 

Having faced scathing criticism in recent years – from its role in perpetuating modern slavery to its overwhelming contribution to global heating – fast fashion retailers have been considered a ticking time bomb. Yet, despite the widely-known repercussions, the industry has shown no sign of slowing and is instead growing year on year: by 2030, global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63 per cent. 

That was, of course, until Covid-19 began to wreak havoc across the globe. Fast fashion relies heavily on cheap manufacturing – a problem within itself – and with the virus leading to the shut-down of some of the world’s biggest supply chains in China and Bangladesh, this has created unprecedented challenges for retailers. What’s more, the demand simply is not there. Since the beginning of March, the Spanish group Inditex, which owns Zara and Pull & Bear, reported a 24.1 per cent drop in sales globally.

This undeniably hits the most vulnerable the hardest, with low-paid garment workers paying the price for major brands cancelling orders, in many cases after the work has already been done. The reality is that many garment workers will now be plunged into destitution, through no fault of their own. 

This has once again prompted a much-needed conversation regarding the future of fast fashion and how the industry ought to take valuable lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps recognising its reliance on those the industry continues to exploit. 

Where do we go from here?

The prioritisation of selling large quantities of clothing at low prices at the expense of both human wellbeing and the environment has to end. With sustainable clothing becoming increasingly important to consumers, fast fashion must adapt and do so in a way that ensures garment workers cease to face exploitation.

One 2018 study undertaken by researchers at Washington University proposed alternatives to the current structure. It suggests that, through trade policy and regulations, high-income countries can promote occupational safety and environmental health within their global supply chains. While they cannot dictate regulations from outside of these countries, they can certainly influence policy, for example, through imposing import taxes or placing caps on the quantities of clothing imported from low- and middle-income countries.  

The Covid-19 pandemic could also encourage the relocalisation of supply chains, something that would be of huge benefit to the environment. With China responsible for 37.6 per cent of all global textile exports, the fashion industry has faced huge obstacles since the outbreak of Covid-19. Companies depend far too heavily on low-cost suppliers and cheap labour markets; localised supply chains would see a reduction in the industry’s carbon footprint as less travel would be required.

Fast fashion may well survive Covid-19, but it must change going forward. As the pandemic has forced the industry to slow down, fast fashion has an opportunity to reconstruct itself, moving to a ‘slow fashion’ model while prioritising workers’ rights and the environment.