July 3, 2020 - Ethical & Sustainable

How COVID-19 May Have a Positive Impact on a Sustainable Future for the Fashion Industry

Empty clothing factory during Covid-19 pandemic

According to the website Fashion United and a study by the Boston Consulting Group, the economic crisis is expected to wipe out more than 30% of the fashion industry’s business in 2020. What has affected you the most during COVID-19 regarding fashion? Has it been reduced retail sales, online delivery delays, canceled events, fewer jobs, loss of community and social interaction, or no shopping?

Clothing stores closed due to Covid-19

There have been many positives that have resulted from the pandemic, which has forced us to step back and re-evaluate our priorities and values in life. Worldwide lockdowns have reduced pollution-causing emissions to fall, as there have been fewer vehicles on the roads and factories in operation. Some countries have experienced clearer skies and improved air quality, which is a great relief for asthma and hay fever sufferers.

Many people have re-connected with nature and have a greater appreciation for the outdoors particularly green, open spaces such as the countryside and parks. There has been a greater focus on exercising daily, eating healthier home-cooked meals, and taking vitamins to boost our immune systems.

Exercising and keeping healthy during the Coronavirus lockdown

Consumers have also adapted their mindset to live with less and to make the most of what they already have. Sustainability may be the only way for the fashion industry to recover from staggering losses even though it’s worth an estimated US $2.5 trillion according to the United Nations.

Ethical Fashion and Sustainability Could Save the Industry

Global fashion sales plunged up to 70% between March and April 2020 due to the pandemic according to the United Nations. Retailers and brands need to rethink the way they run their businesses, being smarter and more sustainable may be the solution to recover from these awful results.

From the materials they are using to safeguarding their workers, waste reduction, and limiting carbon emissions such as through shipping, this is the ideal time to think about how COVID-19 has paved the way for a more sustainable fashion industry. So what needs to change and how do we play our part?

Reduce the Speed of Fast Fashion

The United Nations states that “…the fashion industry is responsible for 8.1% of the greenhouse gases produced annually.” According to the website Edited, when factories closed in China at the start of 2020 emissions fell by nearly 25%. This meant that new products could not be shipped to western countries to meet consumer demand caused by ‘fast fashion‘. Factories use dyes and chemicals to color the clothes that we wear, which often pollutes nearby rivers that local people depend on for washing, drinking, cooking, bathing, and for food.

Rivers are polluted by clothing factories

When we wash our clothes, tiny microplastics are released, which pollute our oceans and are ingested by fish and other sea creatures. Cotton farmers, particularly in India, are often exposed to dangerous and toxic pesticides when spraying their crops, which can lead to mental health problems including suicide. Huge amounts of water are used to grow cotton, in the production of fabrics and some clothing such as jeans.

Shockingly, the fashion industry is the second highest user of water worldwide and generates 20% of global water waste according to the United Nations. Fashion Revolution explains that it shockingly takes 2720 litres of water to make a t-shirt, which is how much we drink over a 3-year period.

It takes 2720 litres of water to make a t-shirt. That's how much we normally drink over a 3 year period (Fashion Revolution fact)

The majority of clothing sold in western markets is produced offshore so new stock needs to be shipped thousands of miles by sea (or by air if a retailer needs to meet urgent demand). The raw materials for one garment can be sourced and assembled in several different countries increasing its carbon footprint significantly. The slowdown of ‘fast fashion’ was much needed and is well overdue. However, the closing of brick-and-mortar stores led to well-known brands and retailers canceling orders that were in production or ready to be shipped.

Garment workers worldwide lose jobs clothing retailers cancelled orders COVID-19 pandemic

Even orders where factories had purchased the raw materials have been canceled! The #PayUp social media campaign helped to name and shame large fashion businesses that owe more than $3 billion globally to their suppliers! This has had a huge negative impact on over 50 million garment workers worldwide in countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Millions of garment workers have lost their jobs or were furloughed without pay and many families are struggling to survive as a result.

How Can We Make a Change?

The fashion industry was not prepared for the crisis and is facing unprecedented challenges. However, retailers should be doing everything they can to support their supply chain partners wherever they are located in the world. They have a moral responsibility to do the right thing, which means not canceling orders and paying their suppliers in full and on time.

Instead of canceling deliveries of products already made leaving suppliers with masses of unwanted items, fewer factory workers, and a loss of income, orders should be postponed and a future action plan put in place which is mutually agreed upon with their suppliers.

Cancelled orders by clothing retailers due to the Coronavirus

Retailers who act responsibly and show transparency, as well as accountability throughout the pandemic, will do far better post-COVID-19, as they will be more trusted and respected by consumers. As consumers, we can help to support the #PayUp campaign by contacting retailers directly and voting with our wallets by supporting only retailers and brands who share the same values.

Consumers Need to Rethink the Way They Buy

Did you know that the value of unused clothing in wardrobes is estimated at £30 billion and each year an estimated 300,000 tonnes of used clothing, around £140 million worth, goes to landfill in the UK (Wrap)?

Average British women hoards £285 clothes they never wear Fashion Revolution

A garment is worn on average just 4 times and 95% of discarded clothing can be recycled or up-cycled according to Fashion Revolution. When huge amounts of unwanted clothes end up in landfill it releases harmful toxic chemicals into the air. The constant demand for ‘fast fashion’ forces shortcuts to be taken by factory owners particularly in the Far East, as western fashion buyers put pressure on them to finish and deliver orders as quickly as possible.

These shortcuts can lead to significant environmental damage surrounding the factory such as polluting rivers, as well as social and welfare implications for garment workers. If garment workers complain to factory managers then they risk losing or withholding their pay.

How Can We Make a Change?


Sewing using a machine to make garments face masks crafts and textiles during coronavirus at home


For ideas on how you can recycle old clothes or textiles, explore our blog which takes a look at  5 Accessories you can make at Home.

Whilst we may be in the Summer season right now, it’s never too late to make a change. Discover great tips in our blog ‘Sustainable New Year’s Resolutions to help you and The Planet’.

Do We Really Need Endless Amount of Fashion Weeks? 

According to a study by Zero to Market, 241,000 tons of CO2 was produced by the 2018 fashion shows that are located in London, Paris, New York, and Milan, and hold 2 seasons per year. New York was the worst fashion week for total emissions at 37%. Buyers have not traveled to the latest fashion shows due to being canceled, postponed, or even streamed live online instead reducing their carbon footprint considerably.

Future fashion shows uncertain after coronavirus empty catwalk

How Can We Make a Change? 

Fashion shows that are available to watch online can also include talks, virtual showrooms, digitally produced samples, and the ability to purchase directly from the catwalk straight away. The luxury brand Burberry, started doing this several years ago, which was a great success as it made luxury clothing more accessible.

Fashion designers, brands, and retailers should also reduce the number of seasons and collections. Even limiting the number of pieces in a collection, made with reduced waste and more sustainable materials, would make a big difference. If you feel that your favorite designer, brand, or retailer is not doing enough regarding sustainability, write a letter to them or send them a message on social media to demand change.

Write a letter to clothing brand retailer about sustainable fashion

Now is more important than ever to ensure that retailers and brands follow through and continue to commit to their sustainable initiatives post-COVID-19. Buying less and better and making the clothes we already own last by not being afraid to wear the same outfit twice will really help.

Utilizing Sustainable Materials from Ethical Sources

Sustainable fashion uses sustainably grown (or recycled) materials and uses low-impact processes according to the website Curiously Conscious. The most well-known natural and sustainable materials are organic cotton, linen and wool. Quality garments need to be made over quantity so that they last for many years to come and are well-loved by their owners. Anything that can be done to increase the longevity of a garment and increase the time that it takes to end up in a landfill is worthwhile such as mending, altering, recycling and up-cycling.

Unwanted clothing due to fast fashion gets dumped in landfill when it could be recycled or upcycled

How Can We Make a Change?

Start being more selective if you do decide to buy new. Check the care label for the fiber composition before you make a final decision or find out in the product description if shopping online. We all have our own principles and values so Vegans would not purchase clothing made from wool or silk for example. Find out more about sustainable materials in our helpful guide:

A bamboo plant, which can be used to make sustainable clothing

Avoid synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, nylon, elastane (Spandex or Lycra), polyamide, polyurethane and sequins as they are made from fossil fuels extracted from the ground where possible. They are harmful to the environment particularly when washed as they release microfibers and take a very long time to degrade when thrown away. Good quality clothing will last for longer and will be more comfortable to wear.

As well as sustainable clothing, also consider the ethics and treatment of the workers who make your garments! We recommend carrying out research online and start building a list of your favorite, ‘go-to’ ethical and sustainable brands. 

A Sustainable Future for the Fashion Industry

Covid-19 has drastically impacted the fashion industry from canceled orders to garment and shop workers being made redundant or furloughed, to fashion events being canceled. However, looking forward, the fashion industry may be heading towards a more sustainable future…finally!

The aftermath of the pandemic will change consumer mindsets and behaviors when it comes to shopping. Consumers will hunt for brands that align with their values and beliefs more than ever before. Eco-friendly, natural, and organic products will be preferred as people put their health and the environment first.

Consumers will favor brands and retailers who honored existing contracts with their suppliers, looked after their furloughed employees, produced PPE and face coverings, donated, and gave back to their communities. Sustainability will continue to be an equally important product feature as well as quality and durability.

Kick Start a Future of Sustainable Fashion with Kitenge Store 

Kitenge Store aims to be sustainable by making high-quality, durable made to measure clothing. Made to measure shirts, for example, are cut to order reducing fabric waste. All fabric offcuts are recycled in our tailors’ workshops by making smaller products including men’s bow ties, neckties, and pocket squares. Any fabric offcuts that remain are donated to school art projects or local female artisans who make jewelry.


Kitenge Store African menswear tailor cutting fabric to make custom-made shirts in Tanzania East Africa

One of Kitenge’s Tanzanian tailors cutting the fabric to make a made to measure shirt

The mission of our social enterprise is to empower Tanzanian tailors to improve their livelihoods one colorful garment at a time. We treat all our tailors with respect and dignity and ensure that they are paid fairly. By purchasing a Kitenge design, wearers know they are improving the tailors’ lives, supporting families, and reducing local unemployment – whilst strengthening the Tanzanian textile industry.

While you’re here why not browse through Kitenge’s stylish and fun ethical fashion garments to kick-start a sustainable fashion future? You can currently get 10% off your first order when you subscribe to our newsletter.

Shop Men’s Clothing Shop Women’s Clothing

Further reading: 

What is Ethical Fashion?

What is Sustainable Fashion?

The Positive Impact of Made to Measure on Fast Fashion

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