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4 ways Covid-19 will change the fashion industry

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  • Circular economy
  • Creative economy
  • Design
  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change

From browsing online in your lunch break to a trip to the shops before a Saturday night out, we’re probably all used to contributing to a UK industry worth around £32 billion.

But lockdown has disrupted our routines for purchasing clothes. What might these short-term changes mean for our long-term behaviour?

As part of our work on the future of fashion we surveyed the UK public to find out. Here are four ways the crisis could be a source of positive change for fashion:

1. Buying less and taking more care of our clothes

Over half of us have bought less clothing during the period of lockdown.

52% intend to make long term changes to their fashion consumption, including a third of women who say they will be purchasing fewer items of clothing in the future. Instead, more of us intend to mend things we already own, to buy fewer but better-quality garments, and to purchase second-hand clothing, amongst other changes.

Resale platforms like Depop have seen a surge in sales in the last few weeks, and we can expect to see more brands and retailers exploring adding secondhand, repair or rental services to their offers in the coming year.

2. Highlighting the need for a fair transition for garment workers

From headlines about brands refusing to pay for orders to concerns about the health and safety of warehouse workers to retail redundancies, there have been widespread concerns about the treatment of workers in the garment industry during this pandemic. These concerns are not new, but the impacts from Covid-19 have highlighted the problems and this isn’t going unnoticed.

We found that 69% of people want the fashion industry to create better pay, conditions and job security for garment workers, and more than a third think that the industry should take responsibility for retraining workers if jobs are under threat.

Economies in South Asia and East Asia rely on the garment trade. The devastation from a changing industry here is not to be underestimated.

But rather than attempt to make the case for maintaining the status quo – one which currently sees poor conditions and exploitation – governments, industry and consumers need to work together the enable a fair transition for workers as global supply chains change.

3. Putting society and the environment at the heart of business

Fewer than 1 in 5 of us think the fashion sector should go back to business as usual post-lockdown. Along with calling for better treatment of workers, over half of us want to see the fashion sector doing whatever it takes to become environmentally sustainable. This includes calls to make clothing last for longer and be repairable.

To achieve these demands, the industry needs to rethink its business models. Small tweaks, such as having a ‘sustainable’ line or using materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester won’t cut it.

Instead, the fundamental models which see brands and retailers needing to sell high volumes of lower quality products need redesigning. Many ideas which can help are not new: clothing rental, sharing, repair and resale are all things that societies have done with their clothing for centuries. But digital technologies open up new potential, as demonstrated by the appearance of rental platforms like Onloan.

Business which can marrying positive social and environmental impacts and put them at the heart of their purpose are the ones to watch. Community Clothing, for example, aim to create quality affordable clothes and by doing so create good jobs and help restore economic prosperity to some of the UK’s most deprived areas.

4. Growing support for ethical brands from ‘Gen Z’

When it comes to changing their own behaviours and expecting to see change from industry, Generation Z are the trendsetters.

Almost 70% of 16-24 year olds intend modify their consumption habits, and a third of them intend to support brands with strong ethical and environmental policies.

They also have the highest expectations of government and industry, with more than three quarters calling for better pay and conditions for workers and a similar percentage believing that government regulation is needed to improve the sector. When it comes to attracting sales and employment talent, businesses will need to demonstrate their own commitments if they are to appeal to this market.

The impact of Covid-19 on fashion

The fashion sector is changing.

This week Gucci have announced that they will no longer be taking part on the ‘fashion calendar’ of shows. In a post titled ‘Notes from the Silence’ Alessandro Michele said they will be ‘abandoning the worn-out ritual of seasonality and shows’ and points to concerns about the environmental impact of the industry and its increasingly frenetic pace as the reason.

There is a long way to go for an industry that has been called the ‘favourite child’ of capitalism to reinvent itself for a sustainable future. But reinvention is in its DNA.

The RSA's work on the future of fashion

At the RSA we think our relationship with fashion epitomises many of the social and environmental consequences of today’s economic structures.

Rather than the current ‘take, make, waste’ view of consumption we want to see a more ‘regenerative’ approach based on renewal and reuse. An approach in which we make things to last, protect or improve the environment through the way they are made and used, and provide good quality work and champion equality.

The current crisis provides an opportunity to start building a bridge to better future for the fashion industry.


This survey is part of our work looking at citizen and community led interventions to improving our relationship with fashion.


Join our community and help shape change in a post-covid world.


Our project Make Fashion Circular, in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, encourages young designers to apply their skills to a better future for the industry.

Watch out for more work over the next few months.

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1 Comments

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  • I cannot help that this needs intergovernmental discussion via the UN or other world forum, maybe linked to the climate change agenda that tries to tackle systemic change. What does a fair transition look like for garment makers in South and East Asia. If we move to a circular economy, then the pattern of demand changes and the impact elsewhere can still be devastating. System change for our current globalised economic model is necessary but the biggest challenge we face.

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