For most people who spent more time at home in the past few months, the pandemic-induced lockdown has been an occasion to reflect on their purchasing habits, including clothing. Sustainability, of course, is not a new trend, and consumers have been demanding it for years, but now, with all physical stores closed and economic uncertainty dictating more balance, sustainability is growing even bigger. According to a poll conducted by research company Populus among UK consumers, 50 per cent of consumers believe that the textile industry should do all it takes to become more sustainable, and only 19 per cent want it to go back the way it was pre-pandemic. This goes to show that consumers understand the positive impact of ethical fashion and are ready to push the industry towards a circular economy. The poll also found that over 1/3 of women want to shop fewer clothes after lockdown and want brands to switch to sustainable supply chains.

For some designers, the transition has already occurred. In a story posted in June on the UN's Environment Program website, we found out that designer Nimco Adam, known as "the queen of tie-dye" realised during the pandemic that chemical dyes had a major impact on her health and the environment, so she decided to make sustainability a part of her work ethics and life. A similar story was also shared by a former designer for fast-fashion retailers such as Forever 21, who is now advocating for the ethics in the textile industry. Realising that synthetic dyes are dangerous, he has now partnered with local African suppliers who make textiles from natural, renewable sources such as hemp, bamboo, and tree bark.

For many other brands, the lockdown has been an occasion to recontextualise and rethink brand strategies because demand isn't as high. For example, instead of coming out with a 50-pieces collection that may not be necessary, they are coming with a 20-piece collection manufactured with less waste and respecting worker rights.

The good news: mainstream retailers are breaking ties with unethical brands

These days, if you truly want to make a difference and support sustainability in fashion, the best things you could do are: stop buying clothes you do not need and if you do need to buy them, opt for second-hand stores or local, ethical brands. In India, brands like Upasana, House of Wandering Silk, and Ba No Batwo come to mind, but the list has become very long in the past years. 

However, change isn't always easy, and it's understandable that some consumers prefer shopping from the sustainable line of popular stores until they research and explore smaller indie brands. Fortunately, progress is happening there too, though slowly. For example, Asos stopped listing clothing from Boohoo in July, after an investigation revealed that their factory workers were paid 3.50 an hour and that COVID-19 prevention measures weren't implemented.

After ending the partnership with Boohoo, Asos also asked all third-party brands on the website to commit to four new sustainability and transparency pledges. Thus, brands that want to be still sold on Asos now have to disclose all manufacturing sites in their supply chains publicly.

But it's not just clothes. Educated fashion consumers don't just care about the societal and environmental impact of clothing, but also of everything else that comes with it, including packaging. When receiving their order, customers don't want unnecessary packaging, and they prefer bags and boxes made from biodegradable, recyclable materials, which has pushed many brands to reassess their packaging supplies. After all, the surging popularity of ethical textiles is part of a broader shift towards the circular economy.

How do we build back the ethical textile industry in the post-COVID economy?

The COVID-19 crisis is far from over, but preliminary studies show that the textile and garment industry was one of the most severely affected. With many brands and retailers breaking contracts, ending partnerships, canceling orders, or even going out of business, the supply chain took a big hit. And ethical companies, unfortunately, suffered more than the rest.

Reports from textile companies in the US and the EU show that major brands have made massive price cuts to keep buyers interested and demanded huge discounts from their suppliers. As a result, many suppliers were no longer able to offer decent wages to their workers. For example, 80 per cenr of textile suppliers in Bangladesh said that they couldn't even provide severance packages to the workers that had been laid off as a result of en-masse order cancellation.

This kind of behaviour is undoubtedly unethical and only propagates the problem. And yet, it gave popular brands an unfair advantage over small, ethical competitors, who committed to their principles even at a time of crisis. As a result, many indie brands experienced major financial struggles during the pandemic and were forced to change gears by using donating fabrics or temporarily selling face masks. Unfortunately, the crisis isn't over and the following period will be critical for their recovery.

The fact that fast fashion brands could resort to such hacks in the first place points to critical flaws in the system. Moving forward, more robust legislation and firm global response is required to support the ethical fashion movement. Countries from the EU and outside it need to stick by TGLF value chains and make it a priority to engage in dialogue. Right now, a big part of the movement relies on voluntary initiatives, but for change to occur on a global scale, policymakers need to create tighter regulations and frameworks to even the scales. More often than not, small and ethical textile companies are unable to compete with the giants and truly thrive, even if they have the support of customers.

Groups such as The Alliance, which includes agencies such as the International Labor Organization and the World Bank Group, are among the organisations militating for change, and, during the pandemic, they have helped ethical brands meet their sustainability and development goals. However, for sustained results, there need to be more initiatives, including from the private sector.