Is sustainable fashion sustainable during a pandemic?
What retail apocalypse? Almost three years after experts diagnosed the imminent demise of retail, the industry isn't dead yet. It's getting better.
On July 16, the Commerce Department data showed that U.S. retail sales exceeded forecasts in June for a second straight month, as states reopened and expanded jobless benefits stimulated consumers to spend. Retail purchases increased 7.5 percent from the previous month after a record 18.2 percent surge in May. What's more, clothing and clothing accessories sales rose 105.1 percent over the previous month.
But as COVID-19 cases spike around the country, forcing states that reopened too soon to contemplate shutting down businesses again, and jobless claims continuing to rise to levels higher than previously projected, analysts are warning that the unexpected exuberance may be short-lived. "Retail sales are now back to their pre-coronavirus levels,” Oxford Economics’ Lydia Boussour and Gregory Daco told Bloomberg News. “But while today’s report gives the illusion of a fearless consumer spending lavishly, the reality is more sobering: consumers are increasingly fearful amid new spikes in Covid-19 cases and a looming fiscal cliff.”
Back in April, Studio 30 contributing writer Michael Applebaum's trend report on green fashion detailed how to meet the environmental concerns of its core millennial and Gen Z customers, fast-fashion giants H&M and Zara have been forced to adopt a more sustainable footprint and eco-friendly marketing message. "Mainstream retailers," Applebaum wrote, "including Macy’s, Nordstrom and the Gap are jumping on the resale bandwagon through new partnerships with ThredUp, and analysts are now predicting that the secondhand clothing market will overtake fast fashion during this decade."
Secondhand is here to stay
Ad Age retail reporter Adrianne Pasquarelli recently reported that the coronavirus pandemic may have accelerated this trend. In its annual resale report, released a month ago, ThredUp "says it saw more visitors and activity to its site during coronavirus-related lockdowns—consumers spent 37 percent more time on ThredUp’s site than pre-COVID-19, the company says, noting a record number of visitors in May."
According to the report, 70 percent of all consumers believe that addressing climate change is even more important due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Using data from GlobalData, a third-party retail analytics firm, ThredUp reports that it expects the online secondhand market to increase 27 percent this year, even while overall retail falls 23 percent over last year," Pasquarelli wrote. "Resale is expected to grow five times in the next five years."
ThredUp notes that eco-friendly brands like Patagonia, whose new ReCrafted line of "upcycled" clothing was featured in Studio 30's spring trend report, are getting 57 percent more interest from consumers since the pandemic started. The outdoor brand recently made news when it joined competitors REI and The North Face in the advertising boycott of Facebook due to the platform’s handling of hate speech.
A return to the old normal?
While the retail apocalypse has been paused, most experts believe there is no going back to the way things were. On June 25, Macy's, one of ThredUp's largest retail partners, announced that it was eliminating 3,900 corporate and management jobs. “We know that we will be a smaller company for the foreseeable future, and our cost base will continue to reflect that moving forward,” Chief Executive Officer Jeff Gennette said in a statement. Another ThredUp partner, Gap, also announced corporate layoffs, in May. (In June, the retailer pledged to double representation of double Black and Latinx representation in its corporate management.)
“I think the fundamental shifts happened in the last five to 10 years in terms of the move to online shopping and the popularity of athleisure and secondhand clothing,” Wendy Liebmann, founder and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail in New York, told Applebaum in the spring trend report. “There will be more questions about how much clothing do we really need and a heightened sense of what we’re putting on our bodies in relation to the environment. We may even want to get dressed up for a while after being casual for so long. But in general, the forces that will shape retail’s future were already in place.”
The recent Ad Age Next: Retail virtual conference examined the consumer trends that were already underway well before the coronavirus and the new practices that arose specifically because of the pandemic, including curbside pickup and contactless options for the entire shopping experience.
“The trend towards e-commerce, and the convenience of buy online, pick up in store, was happening before COVID occurred,” Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said at the conference. “And what COVID did was accelerate that trend. What we predicted would take two to three years to happen, happened in a few months.”
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