The impact of the pandemic on the fashion industry presents the possibilities of a future which we need to construct collaboratively and wisely. Once the storm is over, we cannot go back to the way we know how things were done and we need to be ever more innovative, efficient, considerate, collaborative all along the value chain.
The growing infrastructure of the industry has been developed by the increasing consumption and high street fashion brands introduced a new model which made fashion accessible to all. This resulted in the scaling up of the total global supply. The manufacturing scaling took place in the developing countries, Initially the business was good, the margins were ok but the pressure to produce more and more at discounted prices surged further investment in capacities. The simple calculation was that the companies would still make the same revenues with more production as the process were shrinking.
Denim manufacturing is investment intense and needs constant update of technology and as fashion grew to be faster so did the manufacturing technologies. 30-20 years ago, the jeans were sold as raw (unwashed form of fabric) or were hand scraped and stone-washed and would be left to age with their wearer. The past decade has witnessed technological advancements which enabled jeans to be aged, destroyed, distressed much faster at the industrial stage. The trends followed the technology and the technology followed the trends. The insatiable demand was at the driving seat and the industry prospered. Jeans manufacturing is labor-intense, and growth took place in the developing countries where labor is cheaper. The market expanded with additional brands setting up their denim offers and with this growing competition came the price pressure. Fast fashion dynamics were based on the short seasonal products that needed to be replaced after a couple of wears. They were cheap enough to be thrown away – not presenting much value to the consumer and thus the pace picked up to flood the stores with merchandise. In the meantime, the manufacturers felt compelled to expand their capacities and hire and train more people.
The initial global growth of the industry has been at the expense of the environment as it was centered on capacity increase and discounted. Technology came to the rescue to offer eco-conscious processes and this meant for the manufacturers to invest further and as some of the leading brands started raising further awareness in sustainable products, a part of the supply chain embarked on its transformation. The greenwashing could not be evoked due to the complex structure and the geographical spread of the supply chain as well as the lack of a global standard but the efforts towards sustainability prospered. Eco-implied brands and products were marketed as a brand`s image, ethos and for a manufacturer it almost become as a mandatory compliance check point. Sustainability was thriving. Following the footsteps of the food industry, the consumers started to become more informed about who made their clothes as well as the raw materials used. The bigger scale brands remained in transition and independent, Gen Z inspired, fresh brands and the ever dedicated, eco-icons become omnipresent. Well, almost. The products are made by people – so many hands from different cultures, far and away touch the fabrics, sew parts of the jeans together before they hit the closets. These people have faces, families to support, lives dependent on the very scale that the fashion industry has been built on. They are working in mills, sewing garments, washing in laundries because the fashion was democratized, because so many others also prospered along the value chain. Yet the math did not add up. What fascinated me was the statistics that we are sending a truck load to landfill every second, that one of the VPs of a reputable jeans brands questioned why the industry manufacturer waste on stage at the recent Copenhagen Fashion Summit, that recycling was more of a hip concept that all the at scale brands desired to have a taste of but not pay the extra cost and effort associated and that the industry was still expected to grow %63 in supply by 2030. The clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014 and most of this augmented production ended up in landfills. Does the cycle work on the phenomena that the machine is fueled by price sensitive, dispensable products which cost natural resources and out of which so many people`s live depend on in the developing countries? Denim, jeans, fashion is created with inspiration stemming from the past and reaching out to the future. The designers and the product developers need to think ahead of time and initiate or recognize trends, the sales and the marketing teams compile the storytelling and beautify the collections. The labor does not rest, their work is diligent, detailed, exhausting and the reward is…well you take a guess what the reward is. Beauty, talent, hard-work, craftsmanship, capital, natural resources, connection, friendships, innovation, creativity, experience, passion, joy, and fun are all the coefficients that make the denim and the jeans industry.
I have been with the denim family for over 3 decades and we are going through unprecedent times as human beings. I think we have to consider where the essentials lie, what matters, what defines the value, who are most vulnerable in this challenge and who are suffering the most. The workforce insists on showing up at the factories as their lives depend on their wages. The industry`s growth was a panacea for the cheaper consumption and now the supply chain needs support. The time to present responsibility, ownership, trust and exercise sustainability and equanimity is today – not in 2025 and 2030.