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Opinion:

SUSTAINABILITY HAS NOT BEEN CANCELLED

By: Anna Abyzov
Environmentalist | Responsible Fashion Consultant
Head of Sustainable Clothing Department, The Home
Founder, DESTINATION AMA

AND THE PLANET SAID, "STOP THE PEOPLE. I WANT TO GET OFF." And the world has turned upside down when an invisible force burst into our lives, putting the global economy on pause and contributing to some drastic changes not sparing any single soul, country, or industry. And the consciousness of each and everyone has shifted, as we were able to witness all the errors we've created our reality with, seeping through the cracks of the broken systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be genuinely considered as a unique event in its scope and influence, never in the history of the modern world have we been so united, but also completely disarmed in front of such disruption. Canceled orders and tons of unsold goods, extreme unemployment rates and loss of livelihoods, mentally exhausting isolation, uncertainty, and lack of understanding of when this is all over may seem that we haven't been left with a single chance. But any crisis, no matter how devastating it may look, offers us a lot of opportunities to start everything over again. The way we want it to be.

The contradictory nature of this pandemic is giving us the worst and the best time simultaneously. It's pushing us to do our homework and start creating a new reality with the highest intentions in mind, prioritizing people and the planet over just profit. In our world, everything is cyclical and develops in conformity to universal laws. The time to take responsibility for our neglected attitude towards Mother Earth and the most vulnerable and unprotected sectors of our society, who are now suffering the most, came a long time ago. After all we were given a unique opportunity to finally take the capacity of the planetary resources seriously and start conducting business within its boundaries, based on principles of dignity and integrity, ethics and responsibility, respect and humanity. 

RESPONSIBILITY REFORMULATED

And this is what sustainability is about. It cannot be canceled or postponed, because it's a journey and a way of life. We tend to think that sustainability is about consuming greener, cleaner, and more responsibly made products. I believe it's time to redefine the term by aligning it with our goals and making an emphasis on reducing consumption and overproduction instead of encouraging it. The issues of labor, land, and exotic animal exploitation can not be solved with the invention of another sustainable brand. And we have to be serious about what we actually are fighting for with our sustainable movements and platforms. A sober look into the future, researched-based approach to obtaining and verifying information, clear distinction between illusions and realities, and a design thinking attitude - is a hat all fashion professionals should be putting on. I firmly believe that it's time to question the system as a whole, rather than argue around the edges; that's why working across disciplines and collaborating more effectively is the future.

SUPPLY (HUMAN) CHAIN

This crisis is teaching us how codependent we are on each other and bringing some cruel imbalances from the heart of the industry up to the surface. The supply chain has appeared completely broken, with millions of garment and factory workers over the globe being left unprotected and vulnerable. Can we expect companies to manage the risks of potential disruptions? Build business models that secure everyone involved? And accelerate closer partnerships? Supporting suppliers to make sure they avoid bankruptcy, commit to paying living wages, and ensure fair working conditions of the employees who are crucial to the production and success of their businesses, ideally, should come first. Will governments also understand their role and responsibility in the apparel sector, enforce policies and regulations that protect workers' livelihood and wellbeing? These are the changes we all hope for.

A SHIFT OF MIND

While brands and retailers are focused on survival after being shaken up, and consumers' most pressing matter now is hygiene and safety, I'm wondering whether sustainability is in danger of losing its position on everyone's agenda. Based on the recent data collected from 6,000 consumers across Europe by McKinsey, 45% of respondents are attracted to purpose-driven companies communicating concerns and contributing to social and medical agendas, 23% prefer to support local businesses, 21% will reduce clothing-related spendings, and 16% of consumers would now look favorably for the brands with social and sustainable credentials.

The needs of consumers are set to shift as working from home becomes the new normal with business meetings and travel being replaced by video conferences. As a result, a more conservative approach in shopping will be taking place, replacing impulsive consumption and prioritizing comfort and functionality adapted to current realities. Those consumers, who took the time to learn about the connection of COVID - 19 to our collective actions, the planet's health and the issues of the fashion industry, are reassessing their values, re-prioritizing their needs and shifting their attention to more conscious lifestyle, mindful purchasing habits, quality over quantity mindset, craftsmanship, and timelessness.

Small and independent brands lead the conversation around responsibility and provide the foundation for a sustainable fashion scene, but also suffer the most during the crisis due to lower margins and limited cash reserves. Their future is in the hands of the "enlightened" consumer, who is buying fewer but better things, treating clothes as an asset, and demanding transparency from the brands, having them accountable and motivated towards innovation.

SURVIVAL MODE: ON

Despite the statistics by research agencies claiming that reduced investments into sustainable innovation are expected in the short term, there is a tendency that the majority of new companies are building sustainable practices into the core of their business models from the start. As a result, we'll see more brands emerge after the crisis with sustainability at its forefront.

In the meantime, fashion companies that are vertically integrated (manage, design, produce and sell products in a single operation) are the ones who have been least affected by the crisis. According to the majority of brand owners I've discussed this topic with, brands with simple and transparent supply chains, as well as the ones with sustainability initiatives inherited in their DNA (unlike the others that use the term as a marketing tool) are secured in the long term. They will likely emerge from the crisis paving the way for a more sustainable future of the fashion industry.

The biggest lesson we've learned so far is that for anything we do in 2020, we need to have a plan A, B, and C.

Some of the changes and courses of action fashion brands might consider taking:

-Made-to-order small batch collections offer customization options that attach more meaning to products with return rates being comparatively low;
-Timeless pieces that go beyond any fashion trend or season will be prioritized;
-Two-season collections are enough, while drop model proves to give more stability;
-Creativity emerges in the times of crisis and uncertainty due to less pressure from the fast-paced fashion calendar, restrain of resources and availability of time;
-Localized supply chain, at least local manufacturing is the key to success in the case of global catastrophes and disruptions;
-Human resources such as handcraft and skills are diminishing the same way as natural resources are, due to the automation of the production processes. For us to move forward, we have to look back. We all come from somewhere, and preserving cultural heritage through the support of our communities is crucial for the existence of human kind;
-Materials must be as biodegradable as possible because everything we produce is either food that belongs to the Earth or waste that goes to landfill and emitting our ecosystems.

DIGITAL IS KING


Digital clothes, digital fashion shows, digital engagement…

This lockdown and significant supply chain disruptions have accelerated the need for the implementation of online strategies with the use of all available technologies. Automation and digitalization offer advantages beyond just minimizing errors and waste, but address social distancing, which might become the new normal due to the added health precautions. According to Class Eco Hub, a platform for sustainability and innovation, there is a new technology on the market, making it possible to touch and feel the structure of the fabric with a tactile digital device. Isn't it mind-blowing? Especially knowing that sourcing is predicted to move increasingly online? It's not a secret that companies that know how to adapt in a digital realm will come out as winners.

Some fashion brands have already turned to collaborative design and product development, using software solutions that offer 3D digital clothing sampling, virtual fit sessions, and showrooms, as well as e-commerce enhancement platforms. The way AI drives sustainability is in its ability to adhere to seasonal trends, where products become redundant if not bought during a certain period helping predict and plan inventory. Robust social media presence, a resilient digital customer service team, digitally-focused supply chains, and product lifecycle management tools, e-commerce experiences, and live streams will be the glue that holds teams and customers together.

FUTURE: FROM SUSTAINABILITY TO CIRCULARITY - WASTE AS A RESOURCE

I think one of the conversations we should have now is about the industry's authenticity. The question is how can we stay away from contributing to misleading information that creates no value for people and the planet and is used only as a marketing tool for acquiring more customers? And as a result, more non-renewable limited resources are derived and more waste created at the expense of the planet.

Image via CFDA

The sustainability movement is known as a wide range of environmentally and socially-driven initiatives such as elimination of waste, supply chain transparency and traceability, water and chemical management, and natural materials. While it reduces the negative impacts of the fashion industry, it doesn't drive urgency and innovation for fundamental changes to the false system that creates these problems in the first place. This is where the circular economy model seems promising to fill the gap and replace the linear model where natural resources are used for products that are disposed of when we no longer need them.

It's important to note that the circular economy represents much more than just the use of recycled materials, rentals, re-commerce, and refashion practices, which many brands have already started to apply. Cycling a garment multiple times, keeps materials and products in circulation longer and may extend the time before clothes are sent to a landfill, but they do not solve the issues we are focused on. To achieve true circularity, we should perceive waste as an asset, meaning that the end of the cycle materials are either composted back to the Earth or recycled into new raw materials of equal or even better quality. Such infrastructure is far from its industrial-scale, this is why a need to keep investing in the development of innovative technologies that will allow the industry to turn waste into high-quality fibers is crucial. Bigger fashion players can contribute to scaling such technologies by creating demand and making it more available for the rest of the industry.

MARKETING REDEFINED

COVID - 19 has shown us who the real heroes of our times are. Public workers, not influencers, are the ones we should be praising and taking care of. And young visionary designers like KidSuper who's raising awareness on the importance of teachers in our society and giving them well-deserved status as role models in his recent collection photo shoot, know the power of the authentic media voice. To create content that appeals to your customer, we need to understand that people are craving community. Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort suggests that no excessive marketing is necessary because clothes will seduce customers themselves. Anyways, I believe that redirecting marketing budgets towards support programs for the communities that need our collective care and attention, as well as human and climate centered organizations will create more value for the brand. By creating cross-sector partnerships and building bridges with the rest of the world, you let your customer become a part of the broader solution.

Based on the example of some other successful industries that sell their product promising direct health benefits to consumers, such as wellness and mindfulness, organic food and clean beauty, "converting" people into conscious consumers require more emphasis on the connection between irresponsible fashion industry practices and human health, but not only in the context of garment factories workers, biodiversity and environment. We need more conversations in the form of incentives to explain how it directly affects customer's health and wellbeing if we want to let the consumers know what change we are actually trying to make here.

WHAT IS DESTINATION AMA?


For DESTINATION AMA, a platform I've created to raise awareness about the role of the fashion industry in developing "the world our kids would be proud to live in," our next step is about combining forces and collaborating on cross-industry levels.

The organization we’ll be raising funds to create a prototype of a regenerative farm serving as a healing and educational center for the homeless, refugees, and anyone in need and offering them green jobs and many other life-changing opportunities. We'll be collecting clothing donations from local sources and some fashion brands who are sitting on unsold inventory that is considered deadstock now. Next step is to collaborate with Los Angeles based designers and breathe new life into old clothes by upcycling it into unique pieces. By doing that, we'll be able to solve different issues at once including the elimination of waste and the use of raw materials. If it’s calling you too, please don’t hesitate to reach us out!

In conclusion, no matter where I look and where I go, I see one consistent pattern, which is a lack of infrastructure that would support the implementation of all responsible initiatives such as recycling, composting, or circularity. In fashion, rather than just creating a collection, there is an urgency of building the systems for the collection to thrive. Let’s all be a part of the change we want to see in the world!

Contact Anna at:
mrs.abyzov@gmail.com
+1 (630) 254-3731
Los Angeles, CA