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Fashion’s toxic hype obsession: will it be rethought in the post-Coronavirus rebuild?

Bringing fashion to a standstill, the pandemic is posing one question: with global consumerism in crisis for the time being, will the industry be forced into a sustainable future?

As an industry reliant on constantly updating lines, styles, and trends offered up every single season, fashion has always been an incredibly fast-paced industry, working at breakneck speed to meet consumer demands. Its requirement that the supply chain functions at an unhesitating rate has not been kind on the environment and, as is widely known, fashion’s enormous carbon dioxide emissions makes up for 10% of all annual statistics.

Given fashion’s focus on delivering an ever-changing range of products, the industry has been reluctant to meet the increasing demand for sustainability. However, as a result of the current pandemic, consumers have had time to reflect, and a push for more ethical, socially responsible, and Eco-friendly practises has become unavoidable.

If history is anything to go by, crises are often the breeding grounds for renewal and, as we speak, society has been completely flipped on its head by Coronavirus, so why wouldn’t fashion wish to embrace this opportunity for a fresh start? To acknowledge that this sudden halt of consumerism has the ability to finally bring about the much-needed reforms that scientists and activists have been insisting upon for decades might just be the industry’s saving grace. 

Thus far, fashion’s feeble sustainability efforts have not gone very far. Recycling materials and opting for organic cotton during the production process is all well and good, but it does nothing to quell the insatiable buying habits of consumers taught to believe that trend-chasing is an essential part of modern life.

It simply doesn’t make sense that an industry supposedly built on the notion of careful craftsmanship would place such emphasis on hype, but unfortunately it is what it is. Clothes have become disposable no matter their cost, and therefore, rather than asking whether or not they come from a ‘conscious’ collection, what needs to be addressed is consumerism itself and, more specifically, fashion’s obsession with hype.

The destructively relentless cycle of collaborations, pop-ups, designer shows, and drops is, without a doubt, a major player in the industry’s overwhelming contribution to climate change. And it never stops. Even amidst a global pandemic, the idea that everything must be shareable, viral, and ‘of the moment’ continues to loom over us. There’s no escaping it, we buy new things for the sake of buying new things. We’re told it’s okay to upgrade our loungewear during lockdown when, in reality, we could very easily make do with what we already have in our wardrobes.

‘As an industry, we should be questioning how much of everything we make and thinking about what the product — and the cycle of product — means,’ says Tory Burch. ‘I hope that the system, which has to change as a result of all of this, will allow us to define what we do in a new way, in a different way. Less is more: That means everything now.’    

Right now the problem is that even professionals can’t keep up as the hype carousel spins faster and faster, forced to churn out season after season of clothes that will eventually be discarded. Our treatment of these products as transient — here one second, forgotten the next — has already left a considerable mark on the planet that we may never recover from.

Our unquenchable thirst for merchandise is being satisfied by cotton grown using pesticides that obliterate diversity and exhaust water supplies in countries already suffering from droughts. And that sneaker drop that made headlines last week? When it inevitably ends up in landfill it will take one thousands years for the plastic to break down. Not to mention the human rights abuses and exploitation that’s been going on in the textiles industry for years.

Until Coronavirus stopped the world in its tracks (and despite fashion’s arguably meagre attempts to be less environmentally damaging) the industry was well on its way to a point of no return. For a planet with 7.8 billion inhabitants, a whopping 80 to 150 billion garments were being produced every year and — you guessed it — ending up in textile warehouses, third-world marketplaces, and charity shops, full to the brim with cheap, low-quality castoffs.

If a silver-lining can be drawn from a situation as tragic as the one we’re experiencing at the moment therefore, it’s that Coronavirus has exposed these cracks in the system. 

‘Before Coronavirus we were already discussing the need to stop and reevaluate,’ says sustainable menswear designer, Rahemur Rahman. ‘But nobody was voluntarily going to, because it’s business. This has forced us to stop and even big conglomerates like LVMH are thinking: “What does fashion actually mean now?” This is going to make designers look introspectively and think: “How much am I going to make?” It’ll allow us to redefine the fashion schedule. There is only one way from here: up.’

And he’s right. In the coming weeks and months, it actually seems plausible that more attention will be paid to the ideas that have been developing underground for so long. Perspectives about making more from less. Ones that challenge the idea that new is always better, that set in motion genuine, sustainable change. ‘Let’s behave like owners, not consumers, and repair rather than inflict something new on the planet if we don’t truly need it,’ says CEO of Patagonia, Rose Marcario.

So, alongside the various hobbies I’m sure we’ve all picked up since lockdown began, let’s use this newfound downtime to reflect on the way we, as consumers, are prone to thinking. While we examine our priorities, we ought to remember that every item we buy has meaning, that the reason we fell in love with fashion to begin with has a great deal to do with how it makes us feel.

The industry can’t change overnight, and neither can we, but the further we transform our mindsets regarding our own habits, the faster change will come about. Whether for good or for bad, Coronavirus has pressed pause on consumerism and it would be foolish not to leave fashion’s exhausting culture of overconsumption in the past. Let’s welcome this wakeup call with open arms.