How Could Coronavirus Radically Reshape the British Fashion Industry?
According to a snap survey by Fashion Roundtable, 61% of the fashion industry said they have already lost work due to COVID-19. Founder and CEO Tamara Cincik looks at how the government should be supporting workers, as well as the ways in which the international industry can radically reshape how it operates.
Fashion is by nature fluid; an ever-changing industry, based on trends and built on impressions. It is also a prime example of globalisation – from how we engage as creatives, with teams from all corners of the world coming together to create shoots, shows and campaigns, to how we work with our supply chains, with any one garment travelling between multiple territories from design to delivery.
In my time as a stylist, I would often speak with brand owners who had relocated their manufacturing from the UK or mainland Europe to further afield, citing cost, speed and quantities as reasons. People had weighed up the economics of lower wages versus the impact of travelling back and forth to foreign countries and felt that paying wages more locally was unsustainable for them to grow their business and their order books.
But now, as the COVID-19 situation escalates, the globalised, growth-driven business model is finally being called into question. Alongside a recent explosion in awareness of the need for fashion to wake up and shape up, putting ethics and environmental concerns on the backs of both consumers and brand, this is a watershed moment when it comes to designing a plan for the way the industry could work in the future. But in order to prosper and develop a new, more sustainable way of working, we first need the right governmental support to lead us through these uncertain times.
In the UK, the fashion sector has long been a success story; almost in spite of, not because of any support it receives. Our designers are world leading, our fashion colleges rank highest in the world, we are drivers of innovation, but we need to be valued and at times like this we need to be helped. Over the past week, Fashion Roundtable has been busy briefing Whitehall departments, industry federations, trade bodies and City Hall on the concerns and issues facing the fashion industry in the on-going freefall of the coronavirus and its impacts on the economy. From factories on lockdown, to travel bans from Europe to the US and differing advice from global governments on how to deal with the virus, we are facing an information overload and a truly international crisis.
Fashion works to notoriously short lead times, but the ‘just in time’ delivery business model means we run real risks with each decision we make: any disruption or extra cost can dismantle a brand very easily. Most of the sector here in the UK are SMEs (over 57000), that means that if one or more of the team gets sick, in most cases, that is their entire personnel not working, meaning orders, deliveries and financial obligations won’t be met. The past few weeks have also seen a flurry of cancellations: from Make It British Expo to an evening for Liberty x Bite Studios where I was going to speak. The British fashion industry has already coped with three years of Brexit uncertainty, a weaker pound, a lack of governmental support to place non-UK garment factory workers on the UK’s SOL visa list and the shift of market trends from bricks and mortar to online retail. Any company which has survived these shifting paradigms deserves support, praise and has my respect.
While the UK the government has said that all sick pay will be paid to workers from day one for 14 days, the British fashion industry is primarily made up of freelancers or SMEs, effectively working in a gig economy, who will not be eligible for sick pay. So far, the government has offered support for businesses and while we welcome this, Universal Credit is not enough for our thriving freelance economy. Already there are many cases where fashion industry workers are having contracts cancelled, with no governmental support and as these are primarily freelance or self-employed, no statutory support to cover loss of earnings, as well as pay their rent or mortgage and utility bills, other than Universal Credit. This is unsustainable; these are not low-income UK residents, they are high achieving taxpayers and they are the backbone of the UK economy. They need to be included in the next phase of plans as a matter of urgency. Ultimately, we believe this is the key attitude to maintain a healthy and prosperous society in the long run.
As the industry is forced to reshape the way it works, what I would like to see is not only support from the government in keeping the industry afloat, but recognition of the need for UK-based production in a move towards localised manufacturing where it is financially viable for SMEs to grow their businesses within the UK itself. Sustainability needs to be incentivised for businesses, and we need more enterprises like the East London Fashion Cluster: our one hero fashion production story for the whole of the UK. We need to see an increased number of international brands bringing their manufacturing to the countries in which they actually sell. Yes, we need to challenge what we buy, how much we buy, the prices we pay; but we need to see joined up long-term thinking from the industry itself as well.
“This could become a decisive moment in the shift towards more sustainable practises across the fashion industry,” said Laura Gibson, writing for Fashion Roundtable. “Including a wider acceptance of more flexible remote working, a review on global shipping practises and travel for fashion weeks (following on from the carbon footprint data presented by the recent Zero to Market report) and the rise of digitised materials and products.”
Yet despite the huge opportunity for change, I still have questions – and many are yet to be answered. Why has the new Environmenal Audit Committee not added fashion to its list of inquiries for this parliament, despite the praise the last EAC received for its Fixing Fashion Report? Why is needlework not part of the school curriculum? Why is travelling all around the world for a fashion show, or a supply chain still solution? And why do designers in the UK crash and burn: many of the brilliant designers whose shows I enjoyed for LFW at the start of my career are no longer working; the same is likely to be the case for many we see now.
For this industry to prosper in a more sustainable way in the future, we need to nurture new UK-based talent, train them in business, as well as design, and work out new systems which generate longer term business for brands which will be sustainable in every sense of the word: from the fabrics used, to the wages paid and the distance from designer to customer. Now might be the right moment to open up the conversation around some of the changes, but we must come together and support each other to stay afloat.
Join our action by sending a letter to your local MP using the Fashion Roundtable template, connecting to the Fashion Roundtable Community Forum or attending one of our free ‘Ask The Expert’ Fashion x Covid-19 business webinars on Fridays. If anything is for sure, we have to futureproof how we work, where we shop and at what price we value success if we are to survive this turbulence. We have to stay safe; but most importantly, we have to stand together.