What Does Covid-19 Mean for Sustainability?

What Does Covid-19 Mean for Sustainability?

Written by Sufiana SharuddinApril 17, 2020

What Does Covid-19 Mean for Sustainability?

In just the short three months of the Covid-19 crisis so far, our lives have changed dramatically.

Life under lockdown has resulted in normal activities like work, travel and socialising grinding to a halt. Once bustling cities like New York, London and Paris have been left deserted as everyone sequesters in the safety of their homes. 

However, all these efforts to curb the disease have also brought an unexpected side-effect,  carbon emissions have dropped significantly during this period. In China, pollution has decreased by 25%, leading to improved air quality and a huge reduction in CO2. Levels of nitrogen dioxide have also declined in Northern Italy and the same could be seen in other parts of Europe.

Seeing as the environment is benefitting from this temporary pause, the relevance of sustainability has never been higher. For many, this event calls for a new sense of self-awareness, meaning consumers will be far more conscious about their future purchases. Furthermore, job losses and the impending recession have impacted disposable incomes for many consumers.

With these changes already in motion, it is critical for retailers to evolve their values according to current market sentiment.

Circular Product Lifecycles

In the last few years, there has been a strong emphasis on making the fashion industry more circular. From recycling fabric to using more biodegradable materials, new innovations have been introduced in textile production to reduce fashion’s wastage problem. 

As previously highlighted, among the category shifts observed during this period is the uptick in demand for loungewear and activewear. The use of Lyocell, a biodegradable version of rayon commonly used in these categories, has increased exponentially during March of 2020. 

What Does Covid-19 Mean for Sustainability? - Trends Performance Lyocell
Trending products composed of Lyocell.

As seen for the chart above, Omnilytics data indicates the material is uptrending by 16.8% for intimates and 6.5% for activewear. While not all of these products are composed of fully biodegradable materials, the increased usage of materials like Lyocell is certainly a step in the right direction.

Staying Ethical in Times of Crisis

What was a retail crisis has fast become a humanitarian crisis too. With lockdowns keeping consumers from shopping regularly, retailers have been forced to take extreme cost-cutting measures such as cancelling next season’s production and laying off staff.

On April 14th, garment workers in Bangladesh protested for unpaid salaries after factories in the nation reported that $3 billion worth of orders had been cancelled. The knock-on effect of these cancellations has resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs as the fashion supply chain begins to falter. 

Actions like these naturally do more harm than good – suppliers and manufacturers have now lost their workers and are unable to continue production. Retailers that have cancelled orders will realise they would’ve needed it to continue trading and maintain cash flow. 

Our recent interview with Micheal Deng, the CEO of a major manufacturing company in China explains how brands and manufacturers should work together to bring balance to the supply chain during these tough times.

A Shift in Ownership 

Another theme to anticipate post-crisis is changed attitudes towards ownership. With disposable income not being readily available, consumers will seek new methods to purchase products. We’ve already seen a resurgence in thrifting and reselling in the past, as platforms like Depop gain in popularity. 

This crisis could potentially provide new opportunities to off-season retail as the majority of the unsold stock from this season will be likely directed towards outlets or retailers like TK Maxx and Marshall’s. Luxury resale websites like The RealReal and Vestaire Collective may also benefit from this shift in terms of consignment and retail. In Hong Kong, the luxury resale market has seen an uplift due to recession fears – fine jewellery and rare handbag listings have surged up to 70%.

Key Takeaways

In a crisis as large as this one, morally-driven commitments such as sustainability are often ignored for more pressing commercial obligations. However, retailers can no longer afford to overlook the issue. Just prior to the crisis, we saw many fashion companies pledging their commitment to lowering emissions and being more ethically responsible, this situation will certainly test those values. 

As consumers grow increasingly aware and more inquisitive about the goods they purchase, retailers will need to be prepared to answer these questions. Being sustainable no longer just means using eco-friendly materials – it’s an entire mindset. From the origins of the product to the staff working the shop floor, truly conscious consumers will want to ensure everyone is taken care of. 

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