This changes everything

How will the pandemic have reshaped fashion, and what does that mean for sustainability? 

Will people be less materialistic? 

One theory is that people will reassess their values as a result of the coronavirus crisis, decide that material things aren’t really all that, and shop less.  That would be great, but it’s not what’s happened in the past after other crises.  After World War I came the ‘Roaring Twenties’.  After World War II came the Great Acceleration: Following gruelling years of conflict and rationing, people were ready to spend.  New car sales quadrupled between 1945 and 1955, and by the end of the 1950s some 75 percent of American households owned at least one car.  A new crisis arrived in 2008 in the form of a global recession.   As referenced previously on this blog, in the ten years between 2009 and 2019, clothing sales relentlessly increased, adding an incemental 19.75 billion British pounds.  That was mainly driven by fast fashion – Primark, H&M, ASOS, Zara etc, as shown in Figure 1. 

Figure 1 – sales growth of fast fashion brands.  Source – Digital Initiative

So it seems that in the past, people have moved from hard times by throwing themselves into as much jollity as possible.  One way people do that is by buying new stuff.  It wouldn’t be surprising if the pandemic is followed by a similar trend for more shopping, both for clothes and other goods.  Of course, some people have been prompted by lockdown to reflect on what’s truly meaningful to them – which is wonderful, and that could be reflected in growth for sustainable clothing brands.  Let’s hope so.  But it’s very unlikely the pandemic will mean an end to fast, unsustainable fashion. 

Will people still shop digital first?

You know already that many traditional high street fashion retailers have gone bust during coronavirus: Topshop and Dorothy Perkins, along with the rest of the Arcadia Group.  Monsoon went into administration briefly, before being bought out.  H&M’s sales were down -18% in 2020.  (H&M still made a massive profit, though!)  Of the more traditional retailers,  Next did well, because in 2020 their online sales compensated for almost all those lost in stores.  But of course, the real victors throughout the pandemic have been the digital-first players Boohoo and ASOS.  As mentioned in my last blog post, Boohoo’s revenue grew by 45% in the six months to 31st August 2020, and the company raked in £449.2 million in profit.

Figure 2 below shows that four in five people aged under 40 have started using online channels to buy fashion in the past year. 

Figure 2 – Online adaoption.   Source: McKinsey

People have got used to buying clothes online, even people who a year ago insisted you had to try something on before you bought it.  The barriers to online fashion shopping have tumbled.  Digital-first retailers have logistical and operational advantages on their side, as this excellent article explains.  Since they don’t have stores to stock, Boohoo and other similar brands can order just a few of a particular style, to see whether it sells before committing to ordering more.   That’s not an option for traditional retailers, as they need to buy stock to fill their shops.  That can be a problem – in 2018 the New York Times reported that H&M had a $4.3 billion pile of unsold shirts, dresses and accessories

Digital-first retailers ASOS and Boohoo are likely to continue doing well even when stores can re-open.  That’s not necessarily good news for sustainability as to date these brands have relatively weak commitments on the environment compared to H&M and Zara, as imperfect as those brands are. 

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

Will thrifting still be hot?

Yes, yes, yes.  Boston Consulting Group are predicting that the global secondhand market will likely grow over the next five years by a compound annual growth rate of 15% to 20%.  This is very good news for sustainability.  Buying second hand is obviously much more sustainable than buying new, as new items require resource extraction and produce pollution.  There is likely to be growth at the posher send of the scale (e.g. Vestiaire Collective) and at the more affordable too (eBay, charity shops and Depop).  In fact, now is a great moment to sell some of your own spring/summer items you’ll no longer wear.    

Thanks for reading


#sustainablefashion #ethicalfashion #fashionblog #sustainablestyle

Published by jengreggs

I'm a London-based writer and blogger focused on sustainability in fashion. My purpose is to help everyone discover the joy of living more sustainably.

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