Promising developments in fashion over the last year could help us emerge, like butterflies, from the current crisis wearing clothes to feel good about. Consumer studies everywhere are confirming that fashionistas are increasingly making ethical and sustainable choices when shopping, even in the US, which is regarded as the worst global offender for throw-away consumerism.
The fashion industry’s environment record has been bad for many years. Its carbon emissions, its waste, and exploitation of workers in poorer countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam make depressing reading. But 2020 saw some unexpected shifts in consumer behaviour that has forced the industry to pause and self-examine.
Many fashion brands were already talking about sustainable fashion in 2019 – garments made from recycled plastic bottles and other recycled materials began to appear. But awareness of the cheap labour used to make those clothes came particularly into sharp focus when the pandemic hit this year and fashion sales plummeted. “We saw brands cancel their orders in Bangladesh – orders that were already made – and refuse to pay for them, sending workers home from the factories broke and starving” explains Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis.
“The #PayUp campaign on social media, which shamed some of those brands into paying their bills, showed how the power of the people could force effective and necessary positive change in the industry. It was infuriating to see the brands welch, but heartening to see social pressure work.”
Many companies are now considering their workforces in a new light, according to Margo Alexandra of Custom Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to redesigning the fashion industry by helping create careers for low income and immigrant women. “Covid-19 has really laid bare some inequalities,” she says.
Other developments during the year on lock-down include a pair of “bio-leather” trainers that are compostable. “We literally grew a pair of sneakers,” says scientist Dr Theanne Schiros, who paired up with the New York label Public School to develop them. “We collaborated with microbes and grew a pair of sneakers that are backyard compostable.”
A cocktail dress made of sequins created by ocean macroalgae is another fashion creation to turn heads by being compostable. “The dress represents a vision of actively doing good, rather than striving to be less destructive,” explains researcher Charlotte McCurdy, who worked with New York designer Phillip Lim. “A dress made of algae sequins points to a future where fashion can be a negative emission technology.”
The slow revolution to a brighter fashion future, has also been topped off by the pandemic triggering a boom in second-hand clothes shopping, and a sense of make-do with what we have. Ebay saw a dramatic 195,691% rise in second-hand designer fashions, and Depop, a fashion marketplace app for second hand clothes saw their traffic double globally. “Under the most unfortunate of circumstances, we’ve been given a chance to pause and reinvent the way we sell and buy; to re-evaluate what we need to live and to be happy; to reassess what’s important” says Siena Capone in Fashionista.com.
The question is will this narrative continue, when the masks come off?