Many of us in the fashion and retail industry were looking forward to celebrating Earth Day’s 50th anniversary on April 22 by marking the progress we’ve made on sustainability and continuing to raise awareness about how we can be part of the solution to global climate change. But the anniversary was greatly dampened by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left our industry fighting for survival.
In times of crisis, it is tempting to lose focus on initiatives that support longer-term business goals such as creating a more sustainable industry and contributing to the social good. And with the uncertainty COVID-19 has brought, it’s understandable that cash-strapped companies would view any programs that are not critical to their immediate survival as unnecessary right now.
But we can’t afford to lose the momentum we’ve built in terms of raising awareness and taking action to create a more circular fashion economy and a more purpose-driven industry because, if there’s one thing the pandemic has highlighted, it’s how closely we’re all connected globally on both a business and societal level.
One thing we must deal with constructively in both the near and long term is excess inventory. Another is shortening supply chains and making them more transparent, socially conscious and environmentally friendly. A third is making sustainability a core part of every company’s business model rather than simply an aspect of good marketing. COVID-19 may be the catalyst for the industry to improve its reputation for making a positive impact with regard to these issues and many others.
Here are four ways retail and fashion companies can put sustainability and social responsibility at the core of their recovery efforts:
Donate Excess Inventory Instead of Destroying It
Post-pandemic, retailers and brands will be left with unprecedented amounts of excess inventory. Store closures that stretched for weeks or months mean companies are sitting on out-of-season apparel, footwear and accessories at a time when cash-strapped consumers have tightened their wallets. Unlike the restaurant and food service industries, which were able to immediately redirect much of their excess food supply toward feeding America’s medical professionals, children and unemployed workers, the fashion and retail industry did not have a unified platform from which to address the inventory problems resulting from the pandemic. We can learn from the example of José Andrés and other extraordinary leaders in the restaurant industry who have turned the problem of excess food into an opportunity to feed those in need.
We just have to ask ourselves how the fashion and retail industry can deal with its excess inventory in a similarly constructive way that benefits the social good. Perhaps some product can be stored or sold through discounting or sale events, but for the rest, the answer must be to donate it rather than destroying it.
This is an opportunity for the entire industry to say good-bye to the days of sending unsold inventory to landfills or burning it — disposal techniques that are environmentally and socially irresponsible in normal times and practically immoral now, when so many people are facing financial distress and in need of clothing and shoes. In our lifetime, it has never been more important for retail and fashion companies to donate their unsold goods because we’ve never before seen so many of our fellow citizens impacted economically, perhaps even facing poverty for the first time. Unemployment recently hit 14.7 percent and some 36 million people have filed for unemployment in recent months. Many of these newly furloughed and unemployed people formerly worked in the retail industry.
Now is the time for the fashion and apparel community to make sure we are helping support our neighbors, including our colleagues who have worked so hard to ensure our industry’s success, by donating the apparel and footwear they may need to get through a lean time. By working with leading nonprofits, fashion and apparel companies can redirect their excess inventory to ensure it can be distributed directly and effectively to those dealing with economic hardship.
Rethink and Rebuild Supply Chains
The coronavirus crisis has revealed just how fragile many supply chains are and retail and fashion companies are wise to use this opportunity to analyze what, if anything, needs to be changed in their supply chains to build in resiliency and flexibility. Post-crisis, many companies will look to shorten their supply chains to ensure they have more control at each stage and to make them more transparent, socially conscious and environmentally friendly. Right now, companies must focus on doing right by their suppliers and including them as key partners in scenario planning and transformation. Longer-term, the industry has an opportunity to create more agile supply chains that anticipate some level of charitable giving.
Heed Consumer and Investor Demand for Sustainability
Consumer attitudes regarding sustainability were already changing before the pandemic hit and that shift will accelerate as we recover from the crisis. Gen Zers are especially interested in buying from brands that commit to the social and environmental good, but consumers across demographics are becoming more mindful about which retailers and brands they choose to buy from. Post-crisis, they will continue to favor brands with purpose that work to benefit the broader community or society.
For public companies, investors’ focus on sustainability issues will continue to play an important role, so making sustainability and social responsibility a core part of the business model will yield benefits in the future. Companies with strong environmental and social governance (ESG) credentials have already proven a safer haven in this period of market disruption and viewing critical actions through a sustainable and purpose-driven lens, not only a financial lens, will be one key to success in the post-COVID-19 world, too.
Focus on the Social and Environmental Good as We Recover
In response to the global pandemic, the fashion and retail industry rallied to support frontline workers with medical supplies, made charitable donations to research organizations and provided economic support for designers, among many other initiatives. The reactions and generous responses of so many leaders and companies were heartening to see. Thankfully, retail businesses are finally beginning to reopen or resume more normal operations in dozens of states, but the recovery will likely be long and volatile.
Once the industry sorts out workplace and customer safety issues, we will need to look much more deeply into our social and environmental responsibility in the post-COVID-19 world. This will include not only turning excess inventory into an opportunity to help those in need, but also finding ways to help the broader community recover and return to long-term prosperity, such as by using the CARES Act’s tax benefits for corporations and individuals who make charitable donations. It will also include building more agile and transparent supply chains and building ESG into business models. Over the long term, we must keep moving toward a more circular fashion economy and acting in ways that inspire and encourage others in our industry to be more generous and mindful about how they operate their businesses.
Andrea Weiss is chairman of the board of Delivering Good, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that unites retailers, manufacturers, foundations and individuals to support people affected by poverty and tragedy. She is also founder and ceo of The O Alliance, and currently serves as a board member of several publicly held companies.