The Current

The pandemic has made it clear just how broken the fashion industry is, says expert

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated just how broken the fashion industry is, says an expert who is calling for it to be “rewired” and to move away from fast fashion.

'There's a role that our industry can do in reconditioning the way ... customers think,' says Imran Amed

The fashion industry produced 114 billion items of clothing last year, says fashion expert Imran Amed. 'There's waste at almost every step of the chain,' he says. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

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The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated just how broken the fashion industry is, says an expert who is calling for it to be "rewired" and to move away from fast fashion.

The average person today is spending 60 per cent more money on clothing than they did 15 years ago, and keeping them only half as long, according to a 2019 report by the McKinsey Global Fashion Index and The Business of Fashion, a fashion industry news organization.

"With that level of consumption, I think it's pretty clear that there's something wrong with the industry," Imran Amed, founder and editor in chief of the The Business of Fashion, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"I think that's been evident for some time. But, you know, as with so many things, the coronavirus pandemic has really just broken that open. It's kind of made it, you know, visible to everybody."

Since spring, major fashion retailers like Reitmans, J. Crew and Brooks Brothers have been crumbling under the financial impact of the pandemic. In May and June, a record number of Canadian companies sought creditor protection — a trend experts predict will continue.

Amed is the founder and editor in chief of the fashion industry news organization The Business of Fashion. He says the fashion industry needs a major rewiring. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Although fashion has become an important part of business and culture, employing tens of millions of people and clothing the entire world, "there's waste at almost every step of the chain," said Amed.

There needs to be a shift in everything from the language we use in fashion (think "customers" instead of "consumers"), to the way people view their purchases, he said. And while he's optimistic about fashion's future, he said overhauling the industry could take years.

Overproduction, rampant discounting

Fashion shows are just one example of where the problem begins, Amed said.

New trends are unveiled on runways every winter and fall, but those clothes don't typically hit stores until months later. While fashion shows were once targeted at fashion experts, these days anyone can watch them from home in real time on social media.

"So all of the desire that's created from these shows, which traditionally [was] targeted at industry people but now are reaching customers, is kind of wasted," Amed explained.

"Like you can't imagine a movie premiere happening six months before the movie is released."

Models walk the Casa Preti 'Luce Luce Luce' runway fashion show on Sept. 16 in Rome. (Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images)

This contributes to overproduction, which then leads to rampant discounting as companies try to rid themselves of excess stock, he said.

"The fact that so much liquidation has to happen is just the result of companies not being able to accurately predict consumer demand," Amed said.

"Their processes for developing and producing those collections are so disconnected from what customers actually want, in an era when technology and other tools can be used to really more accurately forecast what's actually going to sell so that there's not so much waste at the end."

When people start expecting to go into a fast fashion store and pay, you know, $3 for a T-shirt, which is less than the cost of a sandwich, someone's paying the price for that.- Imran Amed, founder and editor in chief, The Business of Fashion

Discounting is also a "slippery slope" that contributes to eroding profit margins and puts too much focus on the "wrong things," he said. 

"When people start expecting to go into a fast fashion store and pay, you know, $3 for a T-shirt, which is less than the cost of a sandwich, someone's paying the price for that," he explained, adding that people early on in the supply chain usually bear the brunt.

Just look to garment factories in South Asia to see the human impact of fast fashion. In April, more than one million garment workers in Bangladesh had already been fired or furloughed amid the financial fallout of the pandemic.

Responsible purchasing

Small, independent designers and shops in Canada have also taken a hit during the pandemic — something that's been hard for Vancouver designer Molly Spittal to watch.

Vancouver-based designer Molly Spittal is the co-founder behind Decade Studio, which sells responsibly made denim. (Matt Atkinstall)

That's why the co-founder of denim brand Decade Studio has started offering up responsible purchasing consultations, where she helps people find responsibly made versions of the fast fashion they're interested in buying. She defines a responsible purchase as one where the people who make the item are paid a living wage.

She said she wants people to see fashion as an investment.

"I'd like everybody to sort of disengage with this feeling that you need to reinvent your wardrobe four times a year and really think about how far your money is going when you're buying a product that is not disposable, and is repairable and is recyclable," she told Galloway.

"You're spending power has a bigger impact than you think."

While she acknowledges not everyone has the ability to spend $243 on jeans — the going price for a pair of ethically made denim from her shop — she believes those who can will be happier with their products in the long run. 

Amed agrees. 

Someone who spends $200 compared to $50 on a good quality winter jacket with a timeless look will likely get more use out of it than something cheap and trendy, he said.

"I think there's a role that our industry can do in reconditioning the way all of these kinds of customers think about their purchases," Amed said.

"But I do think there's a lot of work our industry needs to do."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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