Long before the coronavirus, the future for the fashion industry was grim. As the pandemic spread to Italy as the Fall 2020 fashion week in Milan was beginning, widespread panic and paranoia loomed over supply chains and consumers alike. Of course, the fashion industry is characterized as non-essential, and as social distancing was implemented and business closures were ordered, an industry largely dependent on offline revenue streams — including retail stores, high-profile events and runway shows and presentations.
Even though steep discounts on apparel and an abundance of idle time seems to be the formula to increased online sales, cash strapped consumers aren’t able to generate enough revenue for companies through online shopping. Even if online orders are made, heavy discounts can strip companies of the precious margin, falsely reshape customer expectations, and, perhaps most concerningly, propagate the spread of disease in manufacturing and distribution centers.
In what appears to be a hopeful prospect, the crisis has placed a damper on operations, forcing even fast-fashion companies, which have become increasingly controversial, to indefinitely operate on a slower-paced model, if at all. While Western fashion retailers are hassled by empty stores and halted online orders, the effects are most devastating for factory workers in South Asia whose livelihoods, health and safety are at stake. What the coronavirus calls for is a crucial reckoning and restructuring of a fashion biosphere that fosters environmental damage, poor labor practices and dangerous production methods.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reported, as of March 30, that $2.81 billion worth of work orders made out to 1,025 factories have been cancelled. The workers at these very factories in Bangladesh, the second-largest garment exporter after China, are forced to bear the brunt of the burdens in the calamity facing the fast-fashion industry. Yet the countries that retailers outsource labor to are synchronous with nations most affected by global economic flatlining. In a country like Bangladesh where 80% of its total export revenue is made from the garment industry, this inflated reliance on a single industry jeopardizes the employment of 3.5 million Bangladeshi garment workers, spelling unimaginable poverty, malnutrition and illness.
In factories that remain operating, many have been hit overwhelmingly with order cancellations, delayed payments and steep discounts, leaving these manufacturers grappling with uncertainty. In a survey conducted by Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights, millions of factory workers, predominantly women from rural areas, were sent home without wages or severance pay as a result of reluctance from buyers to allocate wages for workers.
Even closed factories that may temporarily dodge workers risking themselves in inhumane conditions will eventually reopen, and when they do, the emphasis will be on volume and speed, creating a dangerously demanding environment. But without the necessary access to unemployment or health benefits, workers will have no choice but to return to the factories.
The choice for consumers isn’t simple, either continuing to buy from these brands upholds the livelihood of factory workers, but, at the same time the environmental impacts of fast fashion are catching up with us like never before. If anything, the coronavirus has amplified just how unsustainable the fast-fashion industry is, and individuals should take this time to reconsider their consumptive patterns. Consumers have a responsibility not to return to their old habits once the crisis is over, after all, we vote with our dollars, one medium that directly informs companies on our approval, or lack thereof. A focus on making conscious choices and understanding how our products come to be is worthwhile, in light of what this pandemic has revealed.
Crucially, through, fundamental change needs to take place at the top of the supply chain. Protection of businesses is coming at the cost of the protection of workers, and this industry cannot forgo a significant implementation of regulations. The trend-driven, disposable nature of fast-fashion is being tested by the pandemic, and attempting to resolve this issue by ramping up production when operations reopen should no longer be considered viable.
What can be hoped for is a “new normal” that forms around consumer compliance with a shift in sentiment towards consciousness. The issue at hand is complex and deals with economic, anthropologic and ethical implications. What is certain is that the coronavirus is giving the fast-fashion industry and consumers an opportunity to rethink our cultural fascination with excess and recognize how fragile business models affect garment workers.
Email Divya Nelakonda at [email protected]