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In Crisis, Don’t Ditch Sustainability

Under severe economic pressure, it’s tempting to see social responsibility as dispensable, but it’s as essential as ever to long-term strategy, argues Clare Press.
A garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh | Source: Getty
By
  • Clare Press

SYDNEY, Australia — In tough times, sustainability can easily be sidelined. After all, it's a luxury, right? A nice-to-have when you aren't busy navigating shuttered stores, a crash in consumer demand and supply chain disruption? Wrong. Something I keep hearing: sustainable businesses that uphold their responsibilities to employees, suppliers, society and the planet will not only survive this but be better positioned to win when the coronavirus crisis eventually ends.

But as the pandemic has escalated, the steady stream of press releases from fashion brands touting their environmental initiatives has dried up. Meanwhile, many companies are standing down workers without pay. And further down the supply chain, garment factories are suffering from mass order cancellations, with buyers refusing to pay for work that's been completed, according to the Centre for Global Workers' Rights in Bangladesh.

Some rationalise this. Consumer spending is nosediving. And for many businesses, “doing the right thing” by people and the planet is simply not front of mind. But the lockdowns won’t go on forever. What happens on the other side when the crisis eventually ends?

From environmental pollution to the exploitation of factory workers, fashion is one of the most destructive industries in the world and tolerance for these failures is wearing thin. Last month, a mountain of textile waste turned up on the cover of National Geographic. Governments are increasingly turning their attention to the topic, even if legislation has been slow coming. And on the flip side, a new generation of consumers is increasingly attracted to brands with firm values and a clear social mission. Same with employees. These are long-term trends that will endure coronavirus and its economic impact. And companies which keep them in focus will emerge from this crisis in a far stronger position.

Call it enlightened self-interest; doing well by doing good.

The same is true for companies that support their suppliers. Millions of marginalised garment workers at the bottom of the supply chain — mostly young women, mostly in the Global South — earn a pittance making clothes for major brands. Coronavirus and the economic impact of lockdowns threaten to render vast numbers of these workers destitute as business dries up. If that happens, where will fashion turn when the crisis abates, and the industry is ready to switch production back on?

After the global financial crisis of 2007/8, a guide produced by the International Labour Organisation acknowledged the “tensions between the need to remain competitive and survive as an enterprise” and “minimising the social impact of cutting costs.” But it warned against seeing workers as “commodities — like microchips or light bulbs, interchangeable, substitutable, and disposable, if necessary.”

Smart companies recognise their need to cut costs in times of crisis but also see long-term strategic value and competitive advantage in looking after their employees, suppliers, society and the environment. Call it enlightened self-interest; doing well by doing good. But it’s clear that implementing and sticking to sustainable practices can build tremendous brand value, employee loyalty and more resilient supply chains that are all critical to long-term success.

Even in times of crisis, responsible fashion is no optional extra. The long-term costs of failing to prioritise sustainability are too great.

Clare Press is an author and public speaker on sustainable and ethical fashion.

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