Prior to the announcement of Coronavirus cancelling everything, I attended the 2020 Australian Fashion Summit on 13 March here in Melbourne. As the second fashion summit to take place in Australia, it was an action-packed day filled with people from all over the globe and representing different aspects of the fashion industry. Being in a room filled with local and international fashion heavyweights was surreal. From fashion editors, indigenous designers, sustainability activists and CEO’s of fashion brands, we had exclusive access to their views on the future of the fashion industry on a global scale.
The word on everyone’s lips was sustainability. Fashion is great, fashion is fun. But it’s also contributing to the extreme decline of the environment, not to mention the exacerbation of a myriad of social justice issues. It can’t be ignored, and all industry stakeholders have a responsibility to change their habits and practices. This summit was a call-to-action, and it emphasised how drastic our actions need to be in order to achieve some progress. Consumers need to aggressively demand change and brands need to revolutionise their business operations.
The speaker who really struck a chord with me was Eva Kruse. Eva Kruse is the founder and CEO of the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), the world’s foremost leadership forum for industry collaboration on sustainability in fashion. With her dedication to promoting awareness and action on sustainability, Eva has worked with the United Nations, the European Commission and recently spoke at the World Economic Forum. She is a badass to the finest degree and works tirelessly with a vast range of stakeholders to spread her message on sustainability.
With an initial presentation on the hard-hitting facts, Eva immediately dispelled the myth that the fashion industry is the second largest contributor to pollution by clarifying that it may be true in some areas in the world, but not overall. That being said, she stated that the industry is one of the most resource-intensive in the world. It is also highly exploitative of garment workers (which has been affected by the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth)), fostering a demand for human-trafficking and slavery. As stated by Glynis Traill-Nash, the Fashion Editor of The Australian, “name an issue and the fashion industry will have it!”.
Eva Kruse proposed some ideas to reduce the damaging effect of the fashion industry. One concept that she suggested was the abolishment of discount sales. The consumer has become accustomed to only purchasing items ‘on sale’, creating a disillusionment as to the true cost of manufacturing clothes. The psychology of only buying on sale also feeds the concept of fashion being disposable. There is evidence of the fast fashion industry slowly declining, as shown by the collapse of Forever 21, however plenty of consumers are not prepared to pay the fair price for a good-quality garment. Buying cheap clothing undermines the work of textile workers, and indicates that workers are not being appropriately financially compensated. But it appears that discount sales tactics are so ingrained in the retail culture that it would be almost impossible to eliminate them. Brands rely on seasonal sales in order to make money. This could not be more apparent with what’s occurring right at this moment, as essentially every brand is discounting in an attempt to induce some spending.
Eva also suggested limiting fashion week to once a year. Fashion weeks are resource intensive, wasteful and reinforce the need to comply with the latest trends. This aligns with Eva’s suggestion that we need to eliminate the concept of ‘trends’, which was also supported by InStyle USA Editor in Chief Laura Brown. Laura Brown spoke about how InStyle USA stopped including reports on the latest trends, because the concept of designers’ collections being reduced to a single transient trend is ridiculous. And in a world where the demand for vintage and second-hand clothing is on the rise, trends are limiting and should become redundant. Trends feed the need to continue buying, which is further enhanced by the sheer number of collections brought out by designers and brands every year. From my experience as a retail sales assistant, customers continue to demand the release of more collections so that they are constantly exposed to newness. This attitude may change post-Coronavirus, but we shall see.
But what does this all mean for fashion brands? As more brands are going into voluntary administration every week, it is no secret that retail is on the decline. Coronavirus has accelerated the process and the economic repercussions are going to be devastating. Many brands will be incapable of implementing sustainable business practices while remaining profitable, as it would be completely at odds with their current business models. But continuing on this path of environmental destruction is going to have unprecedented economic effects regardless, so the priority needs to be safeguarding our planet.
If the sustainable and socially responsible manufacturing of fashion is going to take place, businesses will close. Consumers will be able to afford much less due to the comparatively high cost of sustainable fashion, leading to decreasing consumption of new products and increasing expenditure on vintage and second-hand clothing. But some brands have been able to successfully navigate the sustainable fashion business, with Outland denim, ELK and Bassike representing just a few of examples of local brands that are making a difference. The founders of these brands spoke about their commitment to supplying customers with the highest standard of products and the need to be transparent. Maintaining a trusting relationship with customers is imperative to survival, and this attitude is central to the success of their businesses. It was encouraging to hear their stories, as they are proof that a viable future for the fashion industry is possible.
Towards the end of the day, there was an announcement that the remaining two days of Melbourne Fashion Week would be cancelled due to the ban on large gatherings. Although the world’s attention is currently on Coronavirus, this may be an indicator of how dire circumstances will become if we do not take drastic action on climate change. We are navigating highly uncertain times and the sense of fear is palpable. However, this summit highlighted the need to be adaptable and resilient. This is true for the battle we are fighting currently and will also be the key to success when making the switch to a sustainable fashion industry.