Sustainability can be a hard sell even in the best of times.
With brands and retailers scrambling to keep their bottom lines from cratering amid shuttered storefronts and plunging consumer spending, however, the financial pain inflicted by COVID-19 could complicate hard-fought efforts to keep the fashion industry’s massive environmental footprint in check, if not derail them entirely.
To be sure, the climate of economic uncertainty has left many businesses questioning their next steps. Apparel giants such as Gap Inc., Inditex and Kering declined to comment if the fallout from the coronavirus will roil sustainability commitments as a result of shifting priorities. Purpose-led Patagonia said that it didn’t have anything to share, other than the fact that it will continue to be guided by its values. (It’s continuing to trial the removal of plastic polybags from its clothing, however.) Allbirds, which slapped a “carbon tax” on itself and champions eco-friendlier materials such as Tencel and sugarcane foam, also demurred when reached for comment, though its new sustainable performance sneaker speaks to the San Francisco brand’s ongoing efforts to make planet-protecting footwear.
Even H&M Group, which previously trumpeted goals such as employing only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and embracing “climate positivity” across its entire supply chain by 2040, was uncharacteristically circumspect.
Regarding how this might affect our sustainability goals, it is hard to make any forecasts in this extraordinary situation,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.
There’s little doubt that the pandemic has dealt the sector a body blow. In the United States alone, clothing and footwear sales could tumble by as much as $19.4 billion, according to research agency GlobalData Retail. A frenzy of cost cutting in the face of throttled cash flows has resulted in sweeping furloughs and layoffs, diminished capital expenditures and deferred or suspended rent payments. Could sustainability be next on the chopping block?
The short answer: It’s complicated.