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COVID-19: Consumer Behaviour and Sustainable Fashion

On the 23rd of March, Boris Johnson ordered a nationwide lockdown due to the growing rate of coronavirus cases in the UK. This lockdown demanded that for the foreseeable future, any non-essential businesses were to be closed to the public, and any non-essential workers now needed to work from home.

While supermarkets have continued to serve the public and are struggling to keep up with panic buying demand, other businesses such as those in the fashion industry are struggling to stay afloat in the new climate.

The pandemic has led to an estimated 40% drop in average market capitalization from the beginning of January to the end of March, and according to McKinsey & Co, it is expected that many businesses in the industry will go bankrupt within the next 18 months.

One of the largest contributors to this unprecedented drop is the decrease in consumer behavior, which expects a likely 70% drop in European spending due to furloughed jobs, and the general consensus of fashion consumption as non-essential buying.

The surge of online shopping

In an effort to combat these statistics, many businesses have started to offer sitewide discounts on full-priced goods, encouraging people to purchase products while disregarding the financial precarity that many of their usual consumers are now facing.

Although many have chosen to stop buying non-essential items, the boredom of quarantine, combined with these impressive discounts, has led others to buy far more than they would have under normal circumstances. And though the closing of physical shops has led many businesses to struggle, online shopping is at an all-time high.

This surge in online consumerism is exactly the outcome that retailers were hoping for in order to keep their businesses alive, and it is only set to increase as we move further into the lockdown period. However, increased online purchasing means increased warehouse demand and deliveries.

While this seems far better than the dangerous alternative to allow the public inside physical shops, the knowledge of what occurs for workers behind the scenes of those online fast fashion deliveries may change the outlook of many who have bought into this market during the pandemic.

Working conditions

Online fast-fashion retailers such as ASOS and Pretty Little Thing, while not exactly known for their impeccable ethical standards, are now being criticized for the working conditions in their warehouses. With Covid-19 being a highly contagious virus, the recommended distance between each person is two meters, and it is expected that those still working are to wear protective gear and wash their hands frequently to prevent the spread of the illness.

In the ASOS warehouse in Grimethorpe however, 500 people have been working in the building without sufficient protective supplies, and the Pretty Little Thing office in Sheffield has been called “a breeding ground for Covid-19”. With the increased demand in online sales and poor sanitation supplies, fast fashion warehouse workers are at a hugely increased risk of contracting the virus.

As the fashion industry is generally not deemed an essential business, it is concerning that many retail workers are being made to continue working in unsafe conditions during a nationwide lockdown. However, due to being such an integral part of the economy, the fashion industry will inevitably cease to rest while other businesses are expected to temporarily shut down. And due to the loss of income from shop closures, the online system now constitutes their primary source of income.

With no immediate end in sight for the lockdown, and market capitalization continuing in its steady decline, retailers will undoubtedly become more desperate and put more lives at risk by encouraging an increase in sales activity. It is important then, that we work to lessen our impact on these workers now before it is too late. By restraining our fast fashion consumption and looking for more sustainable sources from which to purchase products, we can help these workers and take a stand against the poor ethos of fast fashion.

Sustainable alternatives

In recent years it has become increasingly popular to outsource fashion from websites such as Depop, eBay, and Etsy, and now more than ever sustainable fashion needs to step up and take the place of fast fashion. While sustainable fashion already wins points in ethical and environmental impact, with the coronavirus lockdown it may now find new popularity in regard to cost-effectiveness and durability.

As many people are increasingly reluctant to spend their money on non-essential goods, the overall attitude between necessity and consumerism is changing with it. Under usual circumstances, many people would be starting to gather together their ideal ‘summer wardrobe’ and yet now, to entertain the idea that the clothes you bought at the beginning of lockdown may be out of fashion by the end appears ludicrous.

By refocusing attention away from fast fashion and onto second-hand clothing, the concept of ‘in fashion’ becomes obsolete, and the recycled or upcycled aspect omits a potential environmental impact. Although the conditions surrounding the lockdown are upsetting, it has given many the perspective needed to combat unhealthy consumer habits, and the reflection of this in a period of isolation is refreshing.

The lockdown has given a newfound view on the concept of necessity, what you need versus what you want, and allows time to really understand the fashion industry, and consider its ethicality. The realisation of the impact your shopping would be having in terms of cost, waste, and pollution under usual circumstances is eye-opening, to say the least. But to consider that it would happen without thinking about that potential impact shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current industry and their manipulation of consumerism.

A positive change for fashion consciousness

In considering the current impact on the lives of warehouse workers, and the non-essentialism of purchasing a new top or pair of trousers during a global crisis, it is important now, more than ever, that we view our purchases with an understanding of their wider impact. Despite the expected losses, the fashion industry will undoubtedly survive the pandemic, and yet this could be elevated through recognition of sustainability, and reconsideration of necessity.

For many, fashion is an unending source of individual expression, it is how we respond to the world and profess who we are, and this does not need to stop with the pandemic. There are many ways for fashion to not only survive but to grow and flourish in a sustainable and ethical way. Although the number of products bought may decrease as people focus on their needs rather than their wants, the quality will be improved tenfold, and the ethical side effects of the fashion industry may start to disappear entirely.


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