The COVID-19 pandemic has touched, changed, or completely derailed just about every area of life — including our wardrobes. Lockdown measures continue to keep many consumers out of brick-and-mortar retail operations. With so many jobs staying remote for the foreseeable future, sweatpants have become the de facto form of business attire. And now, five months into the crisis, kids are going back to school — largely virtually — sans their usual back-to-school shopping sprees.
These changes have hit many major retail brands hard. But as the New York Times Magazine recently reported, the fashion industry was on an unsustainable road to ruin even pre-COVID, with some luxury designers going so far as to burn their excess stock. Now that the cycle of overproduction and overconsumption has ground to a halt, might we have a chance at realizing a more sustainable, slow-paced fashion culture — one that values comfort, quality, and climate values over flash and hot trends?
We spoke with Maxine Bédat, a 2016 Grist Fixer and founder of the New Standard Institute (a community platform which she likens to a “PolitiFact for the fashion industry”), about these changes in the world of fashion and what could follow all this sector-wide upset.
Her remarks have been edited for clarity and length.
The elusiveness of ‘sustainability’
When I launched my own fashion company, Zady, I discovered that there was a real lack of knowledge, information, and data about what it meant to be sustainable. The industry could — and still does to this day — kind of cherry-pick what things that they would call “sustainable” and market it as a new product. It was like, “What are the trends this season? Oh, it’s stripes, camo, and sustainable stuff.”
For me, it just didn’t seem right. It felt really important to be doing the work that we were doing at Zady — working across the supply chain to try to improve processes — but then, we were still producing new stuff all the time. I thought, “I came into this wanting to make the most impact as possible, not to make the most clothing as possible.”
There needs to be a check on the industry defining what sustainability really means. Energy, chemical use, working conditions, wages — these are things that can be defined and measured. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and if we’re not actually measuring these things, we don’t know whether we’re making progress or we’re just selling another shirt. That was the impetus to create the New Standard Institute, to be this hub of information — and we will be launching our information platform very shortly!
The choice facing consumers
The coronavirus, and the fact that a lot of us are going to school or work remotely, has definitely changed our desire to shop. Apparel has been the hardest hit in the retail space, because it’s not needed — the pace that we were shopping at was just unnecessary. And if you speak to psychologists on the matter, they’ll tell you that buying more stuff is not making us happier people. So in that sense, the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to really think about what our true desires are. Will this be the moment where we make a switch, not just from brand A to brand B, but from shopping behavior A to shopping behavior B?
As with any kind of change — whether it has to do with politics or consumer mindset — it takes people actively choosing for it to happen. We can’t be complacent. We have to keep reminding ourselves: “During lockdown, wasn’t it nice not to be buying new things all the time? We should keep doing that.”
The delicate balance between labor and environment
From an environmental standpoint, this recent contraction in the fashion industry is good. But from a human-labor standpoint, it’s very challenging. Countries like Bangladesh, which rely heavily on the fashion industry for employment, are having a very difficult time. And because the brands hold the contractual power in those manufacturing relationships, they are able to cut loose without paying garment workers. But still, I don’t want people to walk away thinking that means we just have to continue feeding the fashion beast. There are other ways to structure economies that aren’t so focused on environmentally destructive industries.
I think that this will be a real moment for countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam to reconsider which industries they’re investing in and focusing on, which won’t be so destructive in the long term and won’t leave them at risk of being cut out when demand goes down. Labor and environment have to be tackled together, otherwise neither of them will be solved.
The road to changing behavior
It’s very easy to point fingers when it comes to sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry. You could say that brands have to be the ones to change, and then brands will turn around and say, well, consumers have to demand it. Really, all of these behaviors fit within a system — and media also plays a very important role in building awareness and sharing stories about the industry’s environmental and social impacts. That helps build consumer demand for something better, which then puts pressure on brands to actually do better. And then, ultimately, we elect government officials who will regulate these things so that it’s not a choice that a brand does or doesn’t make, it’s just the rules of business.
Similarly, I think celebrities and influencers of all stripes play a huge role in this world. Their business models have a tendency to normalize disposability, because they are rarely seen in the same thing twice. That then trickles down to what the average person thinks is normal. There’s some pretty terrifying data around Gen Z being embarrassed to be seen wearing things more than once. Granted, this was pre-pandemic, so hopefully that has changed. But that cultural shift also requires an influencer waking up and saying, ‘Oh, I understand this is part of how I make money, but it’s also contributing to climate change. It’s also contributing to worker abuse, and I don’t want to be a part of that system.’
And these shifts can happen! If you look back even to the tobacco industry — there were all these exposés on how cigarettes cause cancer. Once that research was brought to light, people pushed for legislation that changed the rules about who could smoke and where, and that made smoking not cool. The number of smokers in the U.S. has gone down because of all of those things. So these shifts do happen, and they happen because of a marriage of data, media, and advocacy.