We are all growing fatigued from discussing the impacts of COVID-19, climate change, and politics on fashion. These are, after all, the hot topics crippling the success of major fashion brands. But instead of dwelling on the weight of this truth, we must accept the challenges we face and keep moving forward. It’s fair to say that we are grieving the loss of “normalcy.” As we move beyond grief to acceptance of our new normal, let’s lay it all out on the table and take stock.
What do you accept as our new normal? I see hope, opportunity and a renewed urgency to cure an industry in need of radical innovation.
Back-to-school shopping has seen a fresh focus on sustainability, comfort and direct-to-consumer shopping habits. Working and learning from home has pushed ath-leisure to take new shapes, with an uptick in organic and preferred fibers, whose breathability and antimicrobial performance outwit their synthetic competition. Colorful tie-dye trends and powerful political messaging add beauty and interest to video conferences and online classrooms.
Let’s not forget masks. Organic fabrications — especially for kids — dominate back-to-school sales. Protecting ourselves is a new normal in consumer behavior, as we tiptoe into new school years, deserted office spaces and polarized voting booths. A re-energized interest in health and wellness is evidenced by unprecedented enrollment in health-coach certifications at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, a school I cofounded in 1990. We can expect this level of concern for wellness and self-care to continue to rise with ongoing pandemic outbreaks. As humanity deprioritizes luxury to make space for a very basic necessity of holistic health, our businesses must adapt accordingly.
Fashion Week has gone virtual, save for a few outdoor shows, capped at 50 masked attendees. The exclusive nature of fashion week has been questioned for years — perhaps this forced change of format will speed up the long overdue democratization fashion needs. Livia Firth is launching the world’s first digital green carpet with her Green Carpet Fashion Awards debuting live on YouTube on Oct. 10 — with a focus on rebirth, reuse and togetherness. Embracing an EcoRenaissance by reducing the travel footprint of its global audience, the energy of virtual gatherings like GCFA will shift consciousness on many levels, and seemingly for the better.
Our supply chains are also seeing some forced innovation. Virtual sampling and 3-D-fitting software like CLO 3D enables designers and technicians to fit and adjust patterns for production. Where some companies were slow to adopt virtual habits in such a tactile industry, the pandemic has pressured them to think outside the box. These changes may be out of desperation, but the long-term rewards of adapting are social, environmental and financial.
Cooling Climate Change
With a fall season upon us projected to be one of the most climate-intense on record, amid a pandemic, and a government that abandons environmental commitments, individuals and brands have taken it upon themselves to slow the impacts of climate change. One such strategy involves a growing awareness of regenerative agriculture as a climate solution. The ability of the soil to draw carbon out of our atmosphere and back into the Earth, where it belongs, is the focus of a new documentary, “Kiss the Ground,” which debuted on Netflix on Sept. 22. Regenerative organic agriculture is good for the quintuple bottom line (people, planet, prosperity, passion and purpose). Carbon-reducing aspects of this holistic farming practice can be implemented today, from farm to finished product — revitalizing our soil, our home, and our lives.
We’ve seen a rise in some kinds of pollution from coronavirus lockdowns, with plastic acting as a barrier to germs. Many shops, in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, will not allow customers to use their own bags, and thus, disposable bags are on the up and up again. Disposable masks, while convenient, are also a huge contributor to pandemic pollution. One organization, The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, in conjunction with major retailers like CVS, Target and Walmart, has launched an innovation challenge. The campaign, “Beyond the Bag,” charges participants to reimagine and redesign the disposable plastic bag. The goal is to replace America’s current 100 billion-bags-per-year waste habit with a circular solution.
Another way we see rapid adoption of climate change solutions is in the reduced global industry footprint. Vertical integration, AI, virtual sampling — all of these somewhat forced changes of habit have reduced both expenses and climate impact. Likewise, a shift toward wellness fibers, those that are organic and/or truly sustainable — such as organic cotton, Tencel lyocell and hemp, further reduces the production of synthetic chemicals and associated carbon emissions.
Fashion Is Political
Remember when religion and politics were not discussed? That was not 2020. We cannot ignore politics in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change. We need legislation that supports regenerative organic farming, rewards resourceful circular models, holds police accountable, confronts racism and accepts our new normal. We need our government to believe in and pave a path for innovation. We need support in redesigning equitable and vertical supply chains. We need our businesses, and our country, to be nimble, resilient, and questioning of the status quo. The mess we are in with poorly planned school reopenings, inaccessibility to health care, racial injustice and police brutality shows that we are not in the hands of those with shared values. Politics are no longer off the table.
Art is an outlet for the rage we are collectively feeling and processing, a way to share our commitment to action. In fact, my newest brand “Yes And” has released organic “VOTE” Ts and masks to encourage participation in a fair and accessible election cycle. Likewise, Abrima Erwiah, who cofounded sustainable fashion brand Studio 189 with Rosario Dawson, has launched Fashion Our Future 2020, a group of influential fashion voices working together to ignite voters. This election cycle certainly has us wound tight and creativity is a healthy way to process that pent-up frustration. Fashion has the power, as an art form, to make bold political statements, amplify voices and engage voters to participate in our democracy.
While our new normal may not be what we envisioned, remember that the future is what we make it. Our circumstances have changed, but collectively, we have the power to shape the years ahead with a shared vision of healing and evolution. By facing forward and moving, however slowly, in the direction of progress, we can together redesign our new normal into a beautiful, inclusive, compassionate, and prosperous reality — for all of humanity to thrive.
Marci Zaroff coined the term “eco-fashion” and is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial eco-preneur.