ask the experts

COVID-19 Could Galvanize Retailers to Become More Sustainable

Experts share their predictions for retail's sustainable future.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

To the untrained eye, green is trending hard in the fashion industry. In recent months, luxury houses trumpeted their commitments to reducing emissions; mall brands tiptoed into the circular economy by partnering with resale services; and retailers of all stripes have tinkered with environmentally friendly or upcycled materials.

But building a sustainable business takes eons longer than telling the world your brand jumped on the eco-friendly bandwagon. As efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 closed stores and halted launches, short-term thinking became the priority. Independent designers and nationwide department stores alike shifted their focus to immediate concerns like paying rent and developing plans to safely reopen stores. Meanwhile, untouched inventory and canceled orders have exposed the fashion industry's excess problem (again). Through it all, few brands have commented on how they'll stay sustainably-minded as they navigate the crisis.

Retail Brew wanted to know: What happens to retailers’ existing sustainability commitments in the post-COVID world, and is there reason to hope sustainability efforts will increase? Ahead, experts ranging from retail analysts, brand founders, and journalists answered that very question.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Some, but not all, retail supply chains could become more resilient

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest concerns for retailers is supply chain resilience. While certain supply chain sustainability initiatives may be reduced due to budget cuts, an investment in supply chain sustainability does not have to be mutually exclusive with an investment in supply chain resilience. To that end, successful retailers can improve their supply chains by exploring technology solutions (e.g. artificial intelligence for inventory management) that help reduce waste, improve sustainability, increase operational flexibility, and help their bottom lines." Natan Reddy,Senior Analyst at CB Insights

“Unfortunately, there's little evidence to support the idea that Covid-19 is going to be a sustainability silver bullet. What we're seeing so far is that an economic crunch provokes two different kinds of responses from brands: the first is to pass that hardship down the supply chain, as highlighted by the #PayUp campaign noting brands that haven't paid suppliers for completed or in-process orders. But there is also some evidence that smaller designers are using the pandemic to rethink their strategies and move toward a slower fashion model, which is ultimately better for the planet. Here's hoping more companies will fall into the latter category rather than the former.” Whitney Bauck, senior sustainability reporter at Fashionista

“As food retailers emerge from the current crisis, many will be redesigning their operations to build resilience so they are prepared for future shocks, whether due to disease or climate change. Designing for resilience can ensure long-term economic growth, while also generating positive environmental benefits.

“By collaborating with others in the supply chain to implement digitally-enabled solutions for matching supply with demand, while increasing direct-buying from producers, retailers can keep shelves stocked. Additionally, by sourcing items directly from regional producers using environmentally beneficial practices, retailers can provide greater supply chain transparency and provide options to best meet citizens' shifting values.” Emma Chow, head of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Food Initiative

Transparency will become a bigger priority for retailers

“COVID-19 has proven why transparency in the fashion industry is so vital. If fashion brands and retailers publish information about how they do business with their suppliers, then they can be held to account in situations like this. Ultimately, it is the responsible companies who are prioritizing their staff, suppliers, and supply chain workers over protecting shareholder profit that will win once this crisis is over.

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“Following the crisis, we must make sure that the progress brands have made in recent years does not come to a standstill. Fashion Revolution will be encouraging brands to reinforce their strategic commitment and practical actions to shift toward even greater transparency, more sustainable business models, and mature industrial relations that ensure workers are paid fairly and treated with dignity.” Carry Somers,founder and Global Operations Director of Fashion Revolution

Startup fashion labels will lead resourceful design innovations

“[At Rothy’s], we have the capability from our workshop to produce very nimbly and never over produce because we’re only producing what’s actually selling. I can see that being a more evergreen practice: not only is there a waste liability, but there’s a huge cost liability if you’re overproducing.

“There’s also just a lot more demand and need for repurposing materials. The idea of transforming waste materials into useful materials [could continue]. We’re probably going to become more resourceful in thinking of how we can bring new life to materials that are currently being landfilled, for example. That was already growing before the pandemic, but it will continue to be a core pillar, especially within apparel and sustainable apparel.” - Saskia van Gendt, head of sustainability, Rothy’s

“Cuyana has always operated with the mindset of ‘fewer, better things,’ focusing on creating quality garments and accessories that are made to last, keeping them in closets and out of landfills. The pandemic is forcing everyone, consumers and brands alike, to live at a slower pace: We are consuming less and brands are producing less. At Cuyana, we have kept a tight supply chain, making only what we have a demand for—which by definition reduces our impact on the environment. In times when mass production has decreased or halted, there's a dramatic decrease in emissions. We hope that this can serve as a key learning when it comes to rethinking supply chain.” Shilpa Shah, founder, Cuyana

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