Conversation with an activist: tackling fashion’s vulnerabilities exposed by Covid-19

The outbreak of the coronavirus has hit the entire fashion industry hard, with many companies struggling to survive. At the same time, the pandemic has brought the dark side of the fashion industry to light. Brands are cancelling deliveries and not paying garment workers in their outsourced supply chains, while the stock problems of shops that have been closed for weeks illustrate the problem of overproduction. Fashion activist Matteo Ward explains the reasons for this plight and proposes possible solutions.

Despite some of his radical ideas, Ward is no stranger to the industry. After working for six years at Abercrombie & Fitch, he founded his sustainable label Wrad in 2014. He is also a frequent speaker at events, as he understands how to examine the problems of the fashion industry in a wider economic context.

Which shortcomings of the fashion industry has the covid-19 pandemic exposed in your view?

Matteo Ward: The market has completely forgotten the people that make our clothes and the fashion industry was okay with that. [...] This is a very old problem. What happened during the coronavirus situation is that a lot of the big brands cancelled their orders and didn’t pay the garment workers for production that had already been put in place.

There are millions of families right now who are suffering because of the situation. Though their wages were so low, to begin with, they depended on them to survive. It is almost like modern-day slavery, which was exacerbated by the coronavirus situation. That’s what is happening from a social standpoint.

The garment manufacturers of Bangladesh alone report cancelled orders worth 3.18 billion US-dollars. It becomes difficult to keep track of the conduct of fashion brands or hold companies accountable in this situation.

Over the past 30 years, it has become clear that the fashion industry has built very complicated supply chains, which involve outsourcing, as well as licensing and unchecking where each and every part of our clothes has been made. Having unchecked, unaccountable and untraceable supply chains can create a lot of risk for companies, especially in today’s pandemic. A sudden lockdown can interrupt and block the supply of clothing and merchandise at various stages in the value chain.

While some fashion brands are grappling with supplies, others fight with the amount of unsold apparel that was left over when stores closed in many countries. Which problems are underlined by this sheer extent of unsold stock?

The fashion industry has been destroying the ecosystem for the past decades in very unaccountable ways. It has been freely taking common goods such as water, clean air, soil and land from the natural ecosystem without ever paying back the price.

The industry has never reinvested in creating a regenerative system, it just invested in destroying and extracting as much as possible from the system for its own gain. From the over a hundred billion pieces of clothing that the fashion industry produces, not only are 85 percent trashed, but it also takes more than 200 years for polyester to be recycled. .

You have provided a couple of examples for shortcomings, do you also see any remedies for these?

I have given examples of some of the problems that the industry has been trying to deal with in the past years. The current situation has exacerbated them and we need to confront these problems now. The board of directors of fashion companies needs to reconsider their supply chain and produce more locally, because problems like this if they keep on happening, will have a bad impact on the bottom line.

What else needs changing other than more local production?

From an environmental standpoint, I hope there will be a wake-up call and that it will be impossible to continue with this level of degradation of resources. We need to start building more regenerative systems with companies recognizing that the resources and land that they are using aren’t free. We should do everything that we can to give back to our ecosystems - starting now.

Also in terms of the level of production, nobody asked to have the billions of garments that are dumped at an increasing rate every single year.

Overproduction has also been recognized as a problem in the industry itself, weighing on the profit margins and resulting in early sales. Why has it been so hard to tackle this?

The good old mentality that infinite growth is possible has started to crumble and fall apart. It is evident to everybody that the problem is that nobody has figured out how to maintain or refine the concept of growth.

If we think about growth in mere financial terms, it means that we need to sell more products every year and at a higher margin every year. This mentality has led us to the current system. If we think of growth as creating more value for citizens and nature, as well as creating healthier and safer spaces and clothing for people, then the paradigms start to shift. That’s the reality that I hope we will transition into after this crisis.

How can this paradigm shift happen in a practical way?

We need a systemic and synergic simultaneous intervention, which, in my opinion, includes three levels. Let’s start with the inner circle, the fashion companies. They really need to redefine how they produce, how much they produce and the function of what they produce. That is a cultural shift that needs to happen in fashion enterprises which is starting to happen. But there is still a lot of tension between the old school and the new school, the younger generation of leaders stepping up and the old generation that has been profit-led for decades.

But you also think the efforts can’t just stop at the companies. What’s the next level?

There needs to be a big change at the financial level, which has already started to happen. We need new financial systems or schemes pretty much based on two pillars: People that lend capital need to consider the environmental and social risks of the company that they’re putting their money in. Sustainable finance is a thing within the biggest financial investment banks, but it’s not the standard. That needs to change.

What’s the last level at which change needs to occur?

A lot of changes need to happen at the government level. We are at the break of a new industrial revolution but the public needs to intervene with legislation and policies engineered to support the rise of new business models - whether they’re circular, regenerative, supporting innovation in different fields or subsidizing better materials, which are very expensive today because they haven’t scaled up.

The government also needs to regulate standards and norms, in order to avoid the confusion that’s happening at the market level. This involves having standards and laws that can tell you when a product can be defined as organic, recycled and biodegradable. Right now everybody is using these terms in a very, very unchecked way and this causes so much confusion - from vegan fragrances to biodegradable t-shirts. One could argue that every single t-shirt is biodegradable - one takes five years to decompose while the other takes 200 years.

How likely do you think it is that your calls will become a reality in the current environment, where fashion companies have to focus on daily operations just to stay afloat?

Companies are really focused on surviving. When you get into survival mode the first thing that you think about is the bottom line, which means selling a lot of products to catch up with the losses of the past four months of lost revenues and making sure the margins are high.

At the same time, there has been a call to refocus and realign business models in order to better concentrate on what makes sense. The letter from Mr. Armani probably says it all. Slow down, focus on what you can do, don’t do too much. It’s vulgar, it's useless, it has a cost. Both views will probably be happening at the same time.

While the future remains uncertain, there are still hopes that the covid-19 pandemic might act as a kind of catalyst. What are your hopes about fashion companies coming out of this crisis?

I hope that some companies spent the past weeks in lockdown to rethink their business model. I already know that some of them have. We need to see how the public’s mindset comes out of this in terms of behaviour and consumption changes. We need to expect companies to, hopefully, reuse the fabrics that they already have. Rather than making a new collection, they should keep unsold garments from past collections and make changes for the next season.

Fashion companies need to create a more participative and inclusive design process. After being out of the market, they need to listen to what it wants and respond to the true needs of humanity in terms of actual emergencies that are happening and social needs as well.

What are those needs that fashion companies need to recognize?

We need to speak about the function of design. What are brands good at, what is at their core? Calvin Klein - they make great underwear, so focus on the underwear. We don’t need you to make huge batches of other stuff. Fast fashion companies: Stop it. Stop trying to fill our planet with a shitload of stuff that we don’t need. [...] Use the product to support and sustain causes that transcend the product itself. Right now, it’s pretty obvious that nobody needs clothing and everybody needs to make sure that we have safe air, safe water and a safe environment to live in for the next 30 years.

If we don’t really need more clothes, what purpose could fashion serve at all?

What I expect is that fashion companies will use fashion as a communication, identification and innovation tool, as well as to push for more innovative, regenerative business models, rather than focusing on selling more clothes that benefit the wealth of one percent of the worldwide population.

Picture: Matteo Ward

 

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