The COVID-19 pandemic has caused apparel sales across the globe to slump, to a degree that hasn’t been seen since the great depression. While clothing retail has been quicker to move on line than some other sectors, such as food sales, almost 85% of UK apparel sales still happen in store and the impact of lockdown has been stark.
As early as March, it was estimated that UK sales in 2020 would be down by £11.1 billion (20.6%) on 2019, and that was on the assumption that stores would reopen in late May. The industry has seen a whole season’s stock and revenue wiped out, pushing brands into survival mode. However, the disruption could prove to be a step on the way to rebuilding a better, more sustainable system.
Buy and bye
Before COVID-19 struck, consumers in the US and UK were buying more apparel than ever, and generally paying less for it. American sales had reached 20 billion garments a year, close to 70 pieces of clothing per person. Yet the average American household spent less than 3.5% of its budget on clothing and shoes – less than $1,800. In 1960, the figure was 10.4% of income, or $4,388 in today’s money.
Much of this growth had been based on “see now, buy now” production, which quickly brings the catwalk to the customer. To achieve this “fast fashion” production, the industry had focused on increasing manufacturing speed and cutting input prices, resulting in ever more production taking place overseas, especially in Asia.
Often, this cheap, almost disposable clothing rapidly ends up being landfilled or incinerated. In 2016 the UK sent 300,000 tonnes, or 4.5kg (10.1lbs) per person, to landfill. EPA figures suggest that per capita clothing waste in the US may be eight times greater.
Before COVID-19 struck, the fashion industry had slowly begun to address the impacts of this model, with 2019 heralded as the year the industry got serious about sustainability. Recognising the growing importance of “sustainability” as a purchasing consideration, brands announced commitments such as phasing out the use of virgin plastics or using 100% recycled or sustainable materials. Policy makers also focused on clothing, with the European Commission’s “Circular Economy Action Plan for a Cleaner and More Competitive Europe” highlighting textiles as an area of concern and calling for the development of an EU strategy for textiles by 2021.
Small and slow though this progress was, COVID-19 risks reversing it. Making changes of the kind brands announced requires working with your supply chain, but many, where they have been contractually able, have recently invoked force majeure clauses and cancelled orders mid-production. For producing countries, the impact on the economy and their people has been devastating. In Bangladesh, for example, the garment sector accounts for 84% of the country’s exports and employs 4 million people. Cancellations have led to £3 billion in income being lost, and around 50% of those employed in garment manufacturing have been laid off.
Some action has been taken in response, with Mallzee establishing a website called Lost Stock to help support Bangladeshi manufacturers. The site enables consumers to order three or more items, falling within their style preference, which will be shipped to them from factories that have been affected, thereby supporting workers. But this is a small chink of light in a rather bleak overall picture.
It is unclear what will happen to the many tonnes of incomplete and unwanted garments in the supply chain, not least because some of the affected countries have limited waste management systems. But even when the supply chain is switched off, many retailers have been left with a huge stockpile of clothes. Primark alone had unsold stock worth around £1.5 billion ($1.85 billion). The retailers have responded by:
- Discounting: Companies have reduced prices or made use of reseller sites to shift stock and recoup some value from clothes left unsold in store.
- Donating: This model aims to make beneficial use of unwanted stock by matching it with people who need it – although doing this at scale is a challenge for the charitable sector. Old Navy announced that it would be giving away $30m worth of clothing to families affected by COVID-19, working through partner organization Good360, which matches companies with excess or unwanted stock with a range of non-profit organisations that support people in need. However, the reuse network within the US and UK can only absorb so much clothing, particularly when it is poorly made “fast fashion”. Historically, the network has relied on exporting many items to less well-off countries, sometimes with unintended consequences.
- Disposal: Luxury brands are often very protective of their image and exclusivity, and reluctant to discount of donate their unwanted stock – preferring instead to incinerate it. This practice came to light when Burberry admitted to it in 2018; it’s an avenue that few will rule out in the current crisis.
All of these measures are effectively sticking a sustainability band-aid on a broken system, when what is needed is a more fundamental transformation. Some new initiatives and business models are emerging. Luxury brands are going ‘seasonless’, while others are providing clothing as a service or offering money off future purchases when unwanted garments are returned. Some entrepreneurs are trying to make it easier for consumers to sell their unwanted items.
These are praiseworthy efforts, but their impact will be minimal as they fall a long way short of systemic reform. Only when there is a requirement for the whole industry to unite around common outcomes will holistic sustainable systems be built, incentivising investment not only in the better management of textiles at the end of life but in developing alternative supply chain models that minimise end of life costs.
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a policy measure that provides a means to incorporate the costs of end-of-life management into the price of products. EPR is already in place for packaging and electronics across Europe, and in some parts of North America, most notably Canada. It could also be used amplify more sustainable practices and models in the textiles industry and ensure that the whole supply chain is working for the same end goals. Furthermore, if the fees paid by producers are varied so that those whose products contribute more to the problem pay more, or if other fiscal incentives can be used to reflect the environmental damage caused by production of short-life garments (e.g. based on factors such as microfibre release, or the CO2 intensity of production), then EPR could help turn the tide.
In fact, France has had EPR in place for clothing since 2007. It covers 95% of the textiles sector and is a primary example of how effective it can be. The benefits of EPR can include:
- End-of-life factors considered during design: Making producers responsible for the costs of managing their products at the end-of-life, they have an interest in anticipating and reducing these costs. Combined with targets for garment reuse and recycling, the result is a change in the incentives around the design and production of garments.
- Waste prevention: EPR need not be limited to garments sold, but could be extended to over-produced items that never reach the consumer – thereby incentivising waste prevention through better stock control.
- Investment in reuse: EPR has the ability to build a stronger, more transparent reuse sector, where organizations such as Salvation Army and Goodwill are recognized and rewarded for the role they play in preventing clothes from going to waste.
- Effective collection and processing: More widespread collection programmes, whether at the kerbside or via producer takeback, will be required to ensure producers can meet reuse and recycling targets. There will also be an incentive to invest in and improve recycling infrastructure, and to make more use of recycled fibres.
As well as extending the lives of clothes and mitigating their end of life impacts, EPR could also be used to incentivise lower production or in-use impacts. Initial signs suggest that EPR for textiles, including apparel, is coming to Europe. Given similar concerns emerging in North America and the global nature of the industry, one would hope that the US and Canada will not be far behind.
Brands that are making sustainability a focus should reflect on the vulnerability of the current system to disruption in the COVID-19 crisis, and the shallowness of the industry’s claims to sustainability that lockdown has revealed. The opportunity now is to take a leading role in discussions to ensure that the system can be designed to meet the intended environmental and social outcomes as cost-effectively as possible. Those in the vanguard should not oppose EPR, but should champion it – alongside supply chain initiatives designed to offer a fair wage, and decent working conditions, to the millions of workers who clothe us.
Featured image: Kaysgeog (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.