The Necessary Adjustments for a Rapidly Shifting Fashion Climate Struck by COVID-19

Redress Design Award 2020 Finalists. Photography by Karl Lam. Image courtesy of Redress Design Award.
Womenswear Winner Juliana Garcia Bello. Photography by Karl Lam. Image courtesy of Redress Design Award.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

The need for sustainability has grown exponentially in the past few years, in an increasingly publicised ordeal to put a halt to climate change. Growing evidence pointing towards greenhouse gas and carbon emissions are forcing both corporation and consumer to reconsider their actions, particularly the fashion industry, which is considered the second most polluting industry behind oil.

 

TEXT: Carina Fischer
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

196 tonnes of clothing make their way into Hong Kong’s landfills every day—the equivalent of 1.3 million t-shirts. According to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, over 100 billion articles of clothing are manufactured and released globally each year, with more than half ending back up in landfills within 12 months. Brands have responded to public outcry against fast fashion by offering sustainable green initiatives, and sourcing more environmentally-friendly materials such as organic cotton or linen. Yet, many brands have been accused of greenwashing, of incorporating baseless environmental jargon in their marketing techniques and releasing minimal eco-conscious offerings in attempts to better their public standing and hop on the sustainable bandwagon.

We spoke to Sarah Fung, Founder of Hula, a pre-owned luxury consignment store in Hong Kong. Fung recounted her thoughts on the fashion industry at large, from when she worked at a luxury retailer “It dawned on me that there was just so much waste.” Even following sales, leftover stock was deemed as normal, common even, on a never-ending cycle of public customer sales to staff sales before finally reaching warehouses.

Sustainable fashion has been edging its way into the mainstream, and has evolved from the stereotype of bland, shapeless apparel to now being the trendy pre-requisite for consumers to purchase from a brand. A recent study by First Insight showed that 62% of Generation Z and Millennials prefer to purchase from sustainable brands, with 73% of Generation Z and 68% of Millennials willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. Even the concept of thrifting or buying second-hand has seen a shifting consumer mindset, as many are now keen to buy into something trendy, hip, and environmentally conscious. Fung referenced when she came to a moment of realisation in the past of how Hula came to be, “I realised that everything was so fast, and so frivolous and so.. throwaway… And it made me think about trying to preserve these pieces for longer.” Reflecting on how someone else’s trash might be another man’s treasure, in conjunction with the excessive amounts of waste that continue to grow, founding Hula in a place like Hong Kong was simply an obvious next step. And other luxury consignment sites such as Vestiaire Collective, and The RealReal have grown to become massive, global retailers, reselling designer goods at up to 90% off the original price

Clothing rental companies such as Rent the Runway and YCloset have grown significantly over the last year, alleviating some production pressure as consumers upcycle existing garments. With consumers opting to buy second-hand from the comforts of their own home, the online second-hand industry is projected to grow by 69% between 2019 and 2021, whilst the retail sector is expected to see a 15% contraction.

 

Redress Design Award 2020 Finalists. Photography by Karl Lam. Image courtesy of Redress Design Award.

 

On a similar train of thought, many companies have begun to incorporate upcycled fabrics or materials into their manufacturing processes so as to reduce waste and create something new without having to put further strain on the environment. Brands such as Girlfriend Collective have created innovative new materials to alleviate this pressure, including workout leggings made from recycled water bottles and Spandex, and forward-thinking competitions such as the Redress Design Award encourage emerging designers to learn about sustainable fashion theories and techniques, in order to drive growth towards a circular fashion system. In conversation with CoBo, Fung discussed how it comes down to respecting the way pieces are made and the processes behind them, emphasizing that supporting sustainable brands doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t break the bank. “It’s just about changing the fashion industry where brands are making things affordable, but on the other side of the spectrum, people are expecting cheaper and cheaper because they can get it [cheaper], and we need to stop this.”

In order to make knowledge regarding environmental stressors and how to be more sustainable publicly available and easily accessible, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) launched a sustainability report chock-full of practical advice and educational materials for designers and brands, including a directory of sources for safe and sustainable textiles alongside instructional manuals for companies to create sustainable roadmaps. Goldman Sachs also recently announced a plan to invest US$750 billion from 2019–2030 to finance and advise companies with a focus on sustainable finance themes.

And with an onslaught of new problems brought on by COVID-19, the question of sustainability in fashion continues to be raised with increasing urgency. Fung speaks on how it has affected Hula, “We were quite nervous when it all started in February… I think, actually, we’ve been doing okay. The message of sustainability is really strong at the moment, people are really trying to change their habits.” Many people have cut down on more frivolous purchases during lockdown, including the purchase of clothing and the excessive turnover rate that the fast fashion industry promotes.

 

Womenswear Winner Juliana Garcia Bello. Photography by Karl Lam. Image courtesy of Redress Design Award.

 

The pandemic has certainly highlighted the problems with fast fashion and the cracks in a very flawed system. Sarah Willersdorf, a Boston Consulting Group partner and global head of luxury stated, “The fashion and luxury industries together are the most negatively impacted of all in consumer goods”—according to research done by Boston Consulting Group, 86% of the approximately 500 manufacturers that were surveyed have been heavily affected by cancelled or suspended orders, with over 40% being unable to pay their employees and suppliers. Restrictions on transportation have put a damper on clothing shipments with some coming to an entire halt, leaving an excess stock of clothes piling up in warehouses.

And yet, COVID-19 has also shown that the fashion industry can indeed pull the necessary strings to become more eco-conscious and sustainable when the pandemic allowed no other option—and this began with the exuberant amount of waste and carbon emissions associated with the various fashion weeks around the world. A virtual fashion week meant that the hundreds of thousands of models, celebrities and more needn’t be flown across the world for a mere five-day stint. Fittingly, the first digital Green Awards will be a uniquely elevated phygital experience, beginning 10 October 2020. Building upon previous phygital fashion show formats, the 2020 Green Carpet Fashion Awards will integrate augmented reality and effects with film, directed by Giorgio Testi and produced by Pulse Films with designs from NorthHouse and holograms by ARHT Media.

Many brands have also strived to take advantage of the extended period of lockdown to experiment with innovative ways to share new collections without being able to work in a studio with models and a full production crew. Ralph & Russo introduced their Autumn/Winter 2020 collection by way of Hauli, a digital avatar, and now, a muse. Each detail on every couture item was painstakingly replicated on the digital equivalent, with each element individually and manually added. The meticulous detail and ultimately unique and stunning results were just a brief glimpse into the possibilities in the intersection of technology and fashion, whether from a point of necessity or simply an amalgamation of innovation, technology and creative genius.

Looking to the future, it is difficult to gauge where the fashion industry may be in five years time, or possibly even just in a post-pandemic world. COVID-19 upended the industry as we knew it, exposing and highlighting the disastrous impacts of the extremes of fast fashion, whilst allowing a plethora of new, greener possibilities to be adopted, for the betterment of the people and the planet. Booming second-hand sales in conjunction with the ever-trendy label of being ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-chic’ will hopefully encourage brands to explore greener alternatives along their production processes, including possibly tapping into the realm of AI or other technologies for fresh, unprecedented and environmentally sound new mediums in the fashion industry.

 

 

 
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