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COVID-19: An Opportunity for Change?

How is the global crisis affecting consumer behaviours towards fashion? It seems an increasingly difficult question. Will the drastic changes we have seen in the short-term result in long-term positive change for the fashion industry? The complexity of our buying habits may need more than a month of lockdown to untangle the skein of consumerism.

The complexities of aspirational culture:

In an article on luxury fashion in China, the Journal of Retailer and Consumer Services looked at the relationship between the culture of aspiration which drives the luxury goods market and the economic reality behind its incessant growth. They look at fashion as a symbol and how this affects what and how we buy.

‘Symbolic interaction theory could explain this powerful craving for luxury fashion goods. […] Luxury consumers are apt to focus more on external social needs rather than on internal individual needs.’ Journal of Retailer and Consumer Services

This ‘symbolic interaction theory’ essentially refers to the exchange of meaning between language and symbols. In essence: a means by which individuals interact within society. This is not a dictionary definition, nor do I claim to possess a great depth of knowledge in sociological science. But I have lived long enough to grasp the idea that the way in which we look has some bearing on our sense of self.

Thus, the aesthetic draw of fashion representing these ‘external social needs’ is clearly important. Fashion has always been a symbol. Of wealth, social status or an expression of identity. Our external sense of self can provide a counterpart to who we are or what we aspire to be within.

But now, during lockdown, this craving for expression through luxury goods and fast fashion seems to have lost its tincture. Our ‘internal individual needs’ are suddenly laid out startlingly clear for us all to see. The weekly supermarket shop becomes the highlight of the social calendar. The one day of the week we can tear ourselves away from the fuzzy comfort of joggers and oversized jumpers. Or not. Who cares? Frankly, at a time when UFO’s were confirmed and nobody batted an eyelid, we probably have bigger issues to worry about.

So what does this mean for the global fashion market? Has consumer behaviour towards fashion changed?

From walking through shopping arcades and browsing through physical shops, to online shopping. From real-time fashion shows, to viewing live-streamed events throughout the world; the framework through which we consume fashion has experienced a dramatic shift. The rise of increasingly sophisticated digital media platforms has been instrumental in this. Social distancing doesn’t necessarily make us distant from our favourite brands.

Many retailers will certainly be transforming the ways in which customers can interact with their brands. Whether this be through better-functioning websites, or curating increasingly bespoke (albeit digital) consumer experiences. This hopefully will improve the experience of how we consume fashion. More thoughtful perhaps? More conscious?

But is this the full story?

According to Adobe Analytics, fashion stocks have plummeted since the implementation of wide-scale lockdown. They have gathered statistics from eCommerce transactions from 80 of the top 100 US retailers and have published a report explaining this information from the shareholders.

These figures include the G-III Apparel Group (Kalvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Karl Largerfeld) whose profits have seen a 27.1% decrease to $11.07 USD. Their findings have also revealed that Capri Holdings (Jimmy Choo, Versace and Michael Kors) have also noted considerable falls in sales down 26.2% to $10.2 USD. These results suggest that consumer habits have quickly shifted in response to financial uncertainty. Hence the fashion industry has suffered considerable shortfalls in revenue as a result. Yet, this is in spite of the relative ease and simplicity of online shopping. So what else is going on?

In a new report compiled by McKinsey and Business of Fashion, researchers suggest that spending cuts will occur on an individual basis as well as a governmental one.

‘Shoppers will likely cut discretionary spending, as they anticipate the outcome of the current global economic situation.’ McKinsey and Business of Fashion

This marks a clear shift in our short-term current spending habits. Financial uncertainty stemming from wide-scale job losses and shortfalls in demand inevitably result in consumer hesitancy and reluctance to spend. Industries such as fashion which don’t necessarily fall under the category of ‘necessities’ will therefore experience this downturn on a considerably larger scale.

Ultimately, the immediate effects of COVID-19 are being felt on a global scale, impacting not just consumers, but entire supply chains which support the industry. But what does this mean in the long term?

Changing consumer mindsets:

Will the current pace of change pave way for a systematic re-consideration of the values that underpin consumer buying habits? Will we all become more mindful of not just what we buy, but how we buy?

According to a report published for Business Today, the pandemic holds the potential to impact long-term consumer habits. They predict a rise in interest for sustainable fashion.

‘There will be transformation from “what you wear” to “who you are,” within conscious luxury consumers. This could lead to rising consumer demands for product traceability, supply chain standards, product legitimacy and quality.’ Business Today

Responsibility: corporate or consumer?

The idea of product traceability has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Buyers have become increasingly aware of the impacts of unsustainable supply chains –– on both the environment and the people who produce these items. The quality of consumer goods affects its longevity, which in turn impacts its lifecycle and the rate of sustainability as a consequence.

In the light of the suggestions put forward by Business Today, this sense of “who [we] are” is clearly at the forefront of consumer behaviours towards fashion. Coronavirus could mark the beginning of a shift in the way we view not just fashion, but our sense of self. Do we define our self-worth based on the clothes we wear? The image we project? Or do we base it on the decisions we make?

The freedom of choice is not just a liberty, but also a luxury. We can choose to support a growing industry of conscious producers and ethically sourced goods. We can choose to buy less. Yes, sustainably manufactured items may sometimes be costlier than standard mass-produced items. But in order to create lasting change, these businesses need support to get off the ground. If we buy less, but make better decisions as to what we buy, then costs needn’t rise.

Lasting effects:

Given the complexity of the issue, it seems virtually impossible to say whether this period will result in any long-term shift in our rate of consumption for fast fashion. Or indeed if consumer behaviours towards fashion will undergo any long-term changes. The insatiable demand for current trends is driven by a complex social structure which hasn’t disappeared simply because of lockdown. The issues of sustainability and ethical consumerism are deeply interwoven into the capitalist mechanisms of the society we live in. It will take more than a few months of lockdown to change these kinds of systems overnight.

Yet, in spite of all these complexities, it seems we have been given a chance.

Clearly there is the potential for systematic change. The short-term drops in sales have shown this. Evidently, we can cope without buying a constant stream of new clothes at the unsustainable rates that we were doing pre-Coronavirus. This time of pause and reflection could re-shape the industry. It could catalyse a rise in the standards for ethical trading and corporate responsibility for big businesses. It could change not just what we buy, but how we buy.

But it could also change the way in which we value both ourselves and the world around us. And that holds the potential to change everything.


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