Sustainability and fashion: what’s next? (part 1)

Taggstar CEO Marjorie Leonidas and Sylvie Freund-Pickavance have been friends for over 30 years during which time their careers have criss-crossed. Sylvie is Strategy and Business Development Director for The Bicester Village Shopping Collection of 11 luxury shopping destinations in seven European countries and China. Recently the two of them sat down to talk about what the future looks like for sustainability in retailing, and the fashion industry in particular.

Here’s the first part of their discussion.

Marjorie: Sylvie, what’s your take on the big picture for sustainability now? Even before the coronavirus shut down large parts of the economy, the global retail sector was facing turbulence and uncertainty. 

Sylvie: One immediate effect of the crisis is that it’s dialled up massively the social aspect of sustainability. The coronavirus outbreak is a huge leveller in the sense that we have all been confined to our homes. At the same time, it’s also highlighting the disparities in our society. Some of us are enjoying regular wine deliveries while others are struggling to put food on the table. And then media coverage is bringing the rest of the world closer. We can all witness the impact of lockdown on the world’s poorest citizens.

Marjorie: And people are getting friendlier, saying hello to our neighbours and people we pass on the street when we do go out. Thanking refuse collectors, street cleaners, delivery drivers, postmen and women – something that didn’t happen so much before. There’s more recognition that our lifestyle depends on the hard and not-well-paid work of others. 

Sylvie: Because we can’t do very much at the moment, we are thinking more. And we’re realising what matters: it’s friends, family, food, reading… that the ordinary things are important. We’re developing a new notion of value. As the crisis subsides, some of this will be forgotten but some will stick. I think what will remain is an idea of what is fair, the idea that everyone should benefit. 

Going forward, I think we’ll see people choosing more carefully how they spend their time and their money. People will want to buy the right things, not lots of things. 

Marjorie: That reflects the conversations we’re having at Taggstar with retailers right now. Their priority is to help consumers make good buying decisions, not just spend for the sake of it. However, the global economy has until now been based on encouraging us all to buy more and more. What’s the business model for the future if we will not be spending freely? 

Sylvie. Absolutely. For a long time, personal success has often been defined as having/owning more. But that model of ‘more’ is broken. Take fashion. At the moment, people have time on their hands at home. They’re going through their clothes, rediscovering items, discarding others. And of course, people will have less money. Their investments are down, they’re worried about losing a job, or have already lost a job. They have less capacity to shop. In the future, I think we’ll see people be more conscious about their spending and what they buy. Companies that strike the right chord and recognise the importance of fundamental human values of family and nurturing communities will be more likely recognised positively by consumers – and recover. People will vote with their wallet more than they have in the past and make choices. 

Marjorie: Big brands are pulling orders and manufacturing plants across Asia and Europe are not producing – British retailers alone have cancelled £2.5 billion of orders from Bangladesh. This must be a turning point for the fashion industry. And one that could also be an opportunity to move to a less wasteful model. 

Sylvie: Yes, I agree, we’ll need to redesign the supply/demand chain. A lot of brands/retailers will not survive but I don’t believe the fashion industry will collapse. We’ll all still love beautiful things, to look and feel good. But we won’t buy so much. 

The industry will need to embrace slower fashion, to offer fewer, better, longer lasting styles and recognise that meaning, provenance, personal connection will be increasingly important for consumers. It’s about what’s fair. We may see customers rejecting something that they feel has not been produced in a way that is fair. Instead of buying jeans for £15 and wearing them three times, they might buy one pair at £60 and wear them much more.  

Marjorie: How might this change fast fashion in the future? 

Sylvie: Fast fashion followed the high fashion model in the sense that you build a seasonal rhythm and create demand month after month. If high fashion slows down will our high street retailers continue with the fast fashion model? I’m not sure at this stage. We need to wait and see just how far demand drops, and how far it recovers. I think it entirely possible that we’ll return to having fewer annual collections. And we may never go back to the same level of consumption. 

In the short term, brands will come out of this with a mountain of stock on their hands – and it will be the wrong stock for the season. It’s messed up retailers’ capacity to buy new stock for next season. Can they tweak the existing collection? Or should they order the winter collection as planned? Order a smaller winter collection? Drop a whole season from the portfolio and focus on 2021? There’s going to be some tough decisions to make.

We’ll publish the second part of this conversation shortly. In the meantime, you might like to note that Sylvie Freund-Pickavance will be a guest speaker at our upcoming webinar ‘What’s next for sustainable retailing?’ on Tuesday 23 June, 14.00 to 15.00 BST. Places are limited so register now to reserve your place and get the full details.  

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