Our post-pandemic sustainability narratives won’t get better without sustained effort.
Coronavirus‘s spread across the world and the beginning of stay-at-home orders folded quarantiners into a variety of camps. There were the artmakers and yoga-doers, fortunate to have jobs that can be done remotely. There were communities, primarily of color, that were devastated by unequally distributed resources and disparities in the healthcare system exacerbated by the virus. There were young adults swaddled in blankets hitting “add to cart” just to have something to look forward to, spraying down their packages with Lysol before ripping open their latest boredom purchase. There were the billionaires whose fortunes swelled, increasing by more than a quarter during the height of a pandemic that came down hard on low-income communities.
But most people have been learning how to live with less. Less physical touch. Less money. Less occasions to shop for. Less time in the sun.
Under the most unfortunate of circumstances, we’ve been given a chance to pause and reinvent the way we sell and buy; to reevaluate what we need to live and to be happy; to reassess what’s important. This introspection runs parallel to a plunge in consumption due to financial strains and decreased in-store traffic.
So what does this seismic shift in shopper habits mean for consumption in the long-term, after the surgical masks go from the crowd to the history books? Is living with “less” meant to last? If it does, is that a good thing? And when the next “new normal” comes, can we make it better than the last?
The short answer: It’s more complicated than recent reports would imply, and it will require more than consumer action alone.
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A sense of optimism surrounding rampant U.S. consumerism prevails across journalism and consumer surveys as of late. An Accenture study suggested that consumer shopping habits could be permanently altered by the pandemic, and that ethical and sustainable consumption are the primary concern of the majority of shoppers going forward. Forty-five percent of respondents surveyed claimed to be making more sustainable choices that they intend to continue post-pandemic. A July survey by Genomatica echoes these sentiments: 85% of Americans have been thinking about sustainability “the same amount or more” during the pandemic, and 56% “want both the government and brands to prioritize sustainability even while facing other issues.”
For many, coronavirus has resulted in a reining in of personal spending, by choice for some and as a must for others. The economy has felt the results: While grocery shopping (a necessity in a world without restaurants) grew, apparel shopping (not a necessity for most), particularly at fast fashion and brick-and-mortar stores, plummeted. Discount department stores (TJ Maxx or Burlington) and fast-fashion stores (Zara or H&M) saw the highest downticks in revenue of all apparel and jewelry retailers in the early stages of the pandemic.
Retailers were already competing with e-commerce, a division of the economy that has only grown since the start of the pandemic. Customers’ newfound self-reliance on what they already own has dealt a crippling blow to stores constructed around the idea of needing more than you already have. They became more concerned with paying rent and buying food than discounted home furniture. They learned that they can get by in their pajamas, that it didn’t really matter if they had something nice to wear to their cousin’s baby shower, since it was now on Zoom. And stores had to adapt.
The previously mentioned Accenture study found three long-term trends in respondents: an increased focus on health (not surprising), an inclination towards conscious consumption and a growing love for buying local goods. These massive shifts in consumer attitude suggest that in order to survive, brands must listen and adapt their business model accordingly.
Yet on the other side of the coronavirus coin, people aren’t coping well with being thrust into minimalism, much less embracing it. This has a lot to do with income level. Accenture writes: “33% of consumers are finding themselves ‘financially-squeezed’, with less disposable income compared to before the crisis, and are shopping more cost consciously, whereas 26% (the ‘Resource-Rich’) have increased both their disposable income and free time, and are enjoying new leisure pursuits.”
As consumption options recede, the desire to consume increases. In considering the aforementioned survey results that skew pro-sustainability, it’s important to be mindful when making macro-level applications of the data.
“Polls tend to be squirrelly, because maybe I’m answering the way I want to act, but not the way I act in real life. So I might say yes, I want to buy more sustainable fashion and I’m willing to pay up to 20% more to buy it, but in real life, I may not actually be doing that,” says Jasmin Malik Chua, an expert on the apparel industry’s social and environmental impact (and occasional Fashionista contributor).
There are numerous nuances that need to be taken into account in relating this data to the public, two of them being the impact of online shopping on the environment and the fashion industry and the consequences of “boredom buying.”
For accessibility, online shopping has always heralded enormous benefits, particularly to those who are immunocompromised or elderly. But environmentally, it’s no harbinger of sustainable living.
“When it comes to online shopping, we’re also talking about the packaging that goes into shipping products, we’re talking about the pollution that comes from delivery vehicles,” Chua says. “Most vehicles are designed from warehouse-to-port shipping, they’re not built for residential zones, resulting in big, inefficient trucks.”
Luckily, there are some recent promising improvements in the sustainability of online shopping. Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery trucks from the Michigan-based company Rivian, and retail pickup lockers are becoming more common as a replacement for products being sent piecemeal to consumers’ houses. The online market for shopping secondhand has also been promising: ThredUp reported that the resale industry is currently worth $20 billion and is expected to double in size by 2022. This is largely due to the popularity of thrifting with younger age groups paired with the convenience of apps like Depop and Poshmark.
Another factor at play in pandemic consumption habits is the desire to regain a sense of normalcy and control. In China, this concept is referred to as “revenge shopping,” or voraciously returning to the shopping scene after having to withhold funds for a long period of time. People with extra income on hand have been wholeheartedly pursuing what University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Shipra Gupta calls “hedonistic motivations“: shopping for the entertainment that shopping provides (think luxury candles) rather than following “utilitarian motivations,” which lead us to stock up on hand sanitizer and mountains of toilet paper rolls. We cling to the feeling of hedonistic fulfillment that online shopping brings us because so many of our usual outlets for pleasure — movie theaters, malls, or crowded house parties — have been suspended. The last remaining void we could fill was the online shopping cart, so we stocked it full.
But it’s ignorant to reduce what we make of our “new normal” to strictly the responsibility of the consumer.
“Consumers do telegraph their wants and brands do listen to them, but also, it’s ultimately up to brands to pull the lever: do we want to produce more sustainably, do we want to pay our workers a living wage — it’s completely up to them,” says Chua. “If it’s left up to their own devices we’re talking about self-regulation. Brands, no matter how much they might frame themselves at ethical businesses, a lot of them are still beholden to shareholders, and they’re going to look at their bottom line first and foremost.”
In Chua’s eyes, a third player should enter the construction site for a sustainable fashion industry post-COVID: the government. “Government regulation can play a role as well — making [sustainable business and manufacturing practices] compulsory, so they don’t really have a choice,” she says. “They can’t do one thing and say they’re doing another. We need more government firepower behind that.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s own climate plan draws inspiration from the Green New Deal (which has an end goal of net zero global emissions by 2050) and has set forth a commitment to “hold polluters accountable” by “[directing] his EPA and Justice Department to pursue these cases to the fullest extent permitted by law and, when needed, seek additional legislation as needed to hold corporate executives personally accountable.”
On the other side of the political aisle, President Donald Trump’s EPA suspended enforcement of environmental laws on corporations during the pandemic — a painfully ironic action considering that climate change proliferates increasing numbers of pandemics for the future. Trump has also reversed or is in the process of reversing over 100 environmental rules, including cancelling the requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions and relaxing the Clinton-era Clean Air Act to hold major polluters to much lower standards.
It’s abundantly clear which government has taken the position of holding brands accountable in their treatment of the earth and their workers alike. Biden’s strategy has been described as focused on what actions will simultaneously create jobs and lower emissions (think electric vehicles, efficient buildings, civilian conservation corps). If Biden’s climate plan is able to come to fruition, it will be the most progressive climate strategy enacted in the U.S. so far.
Sustainability seems to be defined by a strange dance between consumer and brand, in which consumer confidence, brand optics and affordability all come into play. On one hand, brands are being monitored by consumers to see how they react to the pandemic. A brand trust report by Edelman found that customers are valuing brand responses more than government responses, with more than half of consumers thinking that brands are responding more efficiently than the government. The same consumers claim that they are holding brands to higher standards, saying that “businesses perceived as putting profit over people will lose trust permanently.”
Of course, these results should be taken with a grain of salt; while many have discovered personal objections to online giants like Amazon that detract from local businesses, it can be hard for many to actually transition from using them due to their ease of use and competitive prices. But regardless of how real-life buying habits play out, it shows consumers are listening and messaging matters.
“I think the more brands are doing it, the more it attracts others to do so, and the harder it would be for those who do not do it to justify why. I think there’s definitely a moment where the risk for those who don’t do it is to lose relevance,” says Francois Souchet, the lead for Make Fashion Circular with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The accessibility of sustainable products still represents a major loophole in efforts towards a sustainable and circular economy. The face of the environmentalist movement, despite historically having been spearheaded by BIPOC individuals, has somehow become the upper-class white woman with an immaculate vegetable garden and a hundred-dollar, head-to-toe organic cotton outfit. Sustainability efforts on the part of major and boutique fashion brands chalk up to corporate “greenwashing” when the majority of the population can’t even afford it.
A truly sustainable fashion industry would require sustainable and ethical brands, fashion and otherwise, to become accessible to all, rather than only the Instagram influencer green smoothie-sippers. Until then, the blame will continue to fall on low-income people for not purchasing organic food (often not within geographic or budgetary reach) and relying on fast fashion due to its affordability. What’s ignored is the fact that the burdens of climate change fall primarily on the same people.
While the latest consumer surveys seem promising, the citizens of this country have consistently proven themselves to be anything but a monolith. As long as brands get away with spending the majority of their money on marketing themselves as sustainable rather than backing that image up with tangible efforts to cut emissions or pay supply chain workers livable wages, we’re simply treading water in the midst of a monsoon.
If the gap between consumer surveys and actual consumer behavior has taught us anything, it’s that transitioning to a sustainable economy needs to be supported by more than just personal wishes for change. A new presidential administration may soothe the wounds (ecological or otherwise) that Trump left to a certain degree, but it won’t negate the harm already done. Transformative change will require a real commitment from brands to put their money where their mouth is. It will require moving away from a socially, economically and ecologically destructive capitalist system. It will require a more nuanced assessment of consumer needs that takes affordability into account when marketing sustainable and ethical goods. It will require government support for holding the fashion industry accountable. And above all, it will require a mass mindset shift on behalf of the American people, consumers and brands alike.
There needs to be a collective reckoning with our need for control. Once coronavirus descended and available leisure activities narrowed, we fell down the black hole of our own faces reflected back at us on our darkened computer screens. Control looked like the reliable expectation of a meal at a restaurant that would two days later shut down from a coronavirus exposure, or the handsome cardboard square left at your door by a postal worker who has little choice in how much contact they have with the world.
But the pursuit of supposed happiness — more accurately described by property, Manifest Destiny and supremacy in all its mangled forms — has had an immeasurable toll on human life, particularly Indigenous and Black lives. The white American logic that if there’s something to take, we not only can but should do so, has guided everything from the colonization of Indigenous lands and subsequent drainage of their natural resources to the modern-day gentrification of city neighborhoods across the country. It’s far past time to look beyond profit and instant gratification. A country in which we truly look out for each other and the planet would require a mass mindset shift away from values established centuries ago which protect inequality, property and almost nothing else.
In 2018, it was discovered that Burberry had been burning 28.6 million pounds of clothing and cosmetics. As I’m writing this article, cancelled and suspended orders from Bangladeshi suppliers have stolen more than $3.1 billion dollars in garments from the supply chain workers who made them, a third of which are the sole earners for their households. A survey from the Center for Global Workers’ Rights, conducted in March, revealed that “72.4% said they were unable to provide their workers with some income when furloughed… and 80.4% said they were unable to provide severance pay.”
We have a chance to ask how we got here, standing amid these mountains of unworn school uniforms and plastic jewelry, millions of jobs for those under the poverty line hanging in the balance, public health on the line. As tired as the “new normal” refrain may be, it’s not only important, but mandatory, that we construct one that was better than the last.