As 2019 drew to a close, the fashion tide seemed to be turning in favor of sustainability. After years of advocacy and education by activists, garment laborers, small brands, independent journalists and more, fashion finally began to acknowledge the need for a more environmentally conscious and socially responsible way of making clothing.
Then 2020 happened, and suddenly the industry was plunged into crisis. Covid-19 spread throughout the wider world on a timetable that eerily mirrored fashion month's progression: Though the season began with what seemed like a fairly standard New York Fashion Week, by the time Paris Fashion Week rolled around, attendees were booking early flights home as the threat of the virus loomed.
Those early weeks gave way to an utterly altered reality as the pandemic took hold. While the world scrambled to establish and uncover a "new normal" for life and business as the months without a vaccine stretched on, another question was looming for fashion: What would become of all the corporate carbon neutrality pledges? Would the sustainability "race to the top" continue, or be forgotten in light of the economic downturn?
The answers have been less than straightforward: This year has brought about neither the end of sustainability, nor its overwhelming triumph. Instead, the path toward a more environmentally and socially just fashion industry has morphed and shifted, revealing new areas of both gain and loss.
Workers' Rights Were Overlooked
Many people hoped the pandemic would provide the kind of reset that might allow the fashion industry to rebuild itself into something more equitable and ethical. But it quickly became clear that at least in some ways, that vision was failing. Major retailers responded to the economic squeeze brought on by the global shutdown by refusing to pay their factories for orders, even if the orders had already been completed.
This resulted in billions of dollars vaporizing from the supply chain, at least $2 billion of which was owed directly to garment workers. Meanwhile the secondhand clothing supply chain was dealing with new problems of its own, as the workers who form "the backbone of the secondhand market" found themselves at increased risk to Covid-19 due to crowded conditions and lack of government support.
Once again, fashion seemed to be placing the largest burden on the most vulnerable people in the supply chain, then giving excuses for why things couldn't be done differently.
Though much of the attention around labor abuse has been directed at workers in places like Bangladesh or Ghana, there were other abuses happening closer to home — laborers in California were exposed to Covid-19 in factories and denied legislation that would protect them against wage theft, while once-beloved "sustainable" brands like Everlane and Reformation were called out for racism and union-busting.
But garment workers and advocates didn't take all this lying down. Ghana's kayayei demonstrated for their rights. Advocates created the #PayUp campaign and successfully pressured many major retailers into paying workers for the orders they canceled. Former employees worked together to expose racism at their old companies. And garment workers continued to push for new legislation that would protect their wages.
While there were many losses in the human rights category of sustainability in 2020, the fight for a more fair industry was not abandoned.
Consumer Habits Changed
As the pandemic shifted how corporations did business, it also changed how their customers shopped. The most obvious shift was in how much people were shopping: "This is the sharpest decline in consumer spending that we have ever seen," said one economist. While this drop in spending accelerated the number of businesses shuttering or filing for bankruptcy — including some "sustainable" cult favorite brands — it wasn't all bad news.
Though it wasn't how anyone would've wished it to happen, activists had been trying to convince people to consume less for years. After all, the science has long pointed to the fact that the planet cannot support our current levels of consumption, which means all the organic cotton capsules in the world won't stop fashion from contributing to global warming. Instead, there's been a push from sustainability advocates to buy less and start acknowledging what the data has long shown, which is that having more stuff doesn't actually make people happier.
Of course, the question remains about whether consumption will simply bounce back to pre-pandemic levels (or even outpace them) once the economy recovers, as evidence is already starting to show it may. But even if it does, there might be other silver linings to how consumer habits have changed — like the fact that people have been shopping more locally, which is good for reducing emissions from shipping.
In addition to all that, brands of all sizes continue to roll out sustainability initiatives regardless of the fact that doing so can sometimes involve additional cost. Whether this is about gaining a business edge over competitors or a genuine commitment to values, the implication is that sustainability isn't off the table, even when companies are facing tighter margins.
Upcycling Was Everywhere
One of the most prevalent sustainability initiatives that was more widely embraced than ever in 2020 was upcycling. Despite having been popular with smaller ethics-focused brands or cool kid indie labels for years, upcycling had long been written off by larger brands in the fashion mainstream as impractical or impossible to scale (or perhaps just as uninteresting).
That changed this year as brands found themselves dealing with smaller margins and disrupted supply chains that made getting access to new fabrics more difficult. Suddenly, brands like Coach, Miu Miu and Maison Margiela were embracing the example set by indie upstarts like Collina Strada and Marine Serre in incorporating vintage or overstock fabrics into their designs.
Like many changes that have come about as a result of the pandemic, this one isn't irreversible, which means plenty of brands will go back to creating all-new fabrics in the future. But the impact felt by the heavily upcycled Spring 2021 collections isn't likely to disappear totally. Now that everyone knows upcycling is possible even for larger brands, the benefits may entice some designers to keep it up.
Everyone Learned to Do Things Digitally — and Stopped Flying
The "flight shame" movement was making serious waves in Europe by forcing people to confront the way that flying contributes to climate change right up until the pandemic dramatically halted most travel. While a deadly virus is, once again, not how anyone would've wished to see those emissions curbed, the fact that they were curbed still did have significant environmental repercussions.
According to the Guardian, 1% of people cause about half of global aviation emissions. Considering that those "super emitters" include anyone who takes the "equivalent to three long-haul flights a year, one short-haul flight per month, or some combination of the two," much of the fashion industry is implicated simply by attending attending a couple of international fashion weeks a year (not to mention the various press trips and Instagrammable vacations that also frequently come with the territory).
When the pandemic eventually ends, a great deal of flying is sure to resume. But having to do without has also forced the industry to get creative with new ways to present collections or shoot editorials that don't involve transporting teams of people halfway across the globe.
We've all had to get comfortable with attending conferences on Zoom, watching collections debut through mini films rather than on the runway, and even exploring what it means to wear clothing in video games or via virtual reality. While all those digital experiences aren't likely to replace in-person events completely, they've proven that you can make some pretty magical things happen even without flying people to some remote location.
Looking forward to 2021
So what will the sustainability conversation look like moving forward? If this year has proven anything, it's that predictions and plans can fall apart more quickly than the time it takes to say "virus."
The Biden administration may feature more women in the White House promoting and supporting sustainability-centric fashion, if these last few weeks are any indication. The fight about whether or not we should even be using the word "sustainable" at all is likely to continue. Black, Brown and Indigenous people will almost certainly continue to prove that the environmental movement is impoverished every time it tries to exclusively center whiteness.
But ultimately, the future of sustainability is uncertain — not in the sense that the movement looks likely to fade away in the coming year, but in the sense that the shape of its future belongs, as ever, to those who take action to create it. An industry that better aligns with planetary limits is no more inevitable in 2021 than it was in 2019, but perhaps 2020 has proven that change can be more sudden and all-encompassing than we expect.
In other words, a more sustainable future is not inevitable in 2021. But the upheaval of this past year should serve as proof that change is certainly possible.