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New Normal: Navigating Uncertainty and the Role of Sustainability

May 20, 2020
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On May 11, we kicked off our New Normal webinar series with some of the leaders in the ecofashion space to explore how brands have reacted to the current crisis, how they navigate in our current volatile and uncertain world and the role of sustainability going forward. This is the first of the series. You can read about the 2nd one here.

The first webinar was titled, Navigating Uncertainty and the Role of Sustainability during COVID-19, and moderated by Derek Sabori of The Underswell. We were joined by Samantha Blumenthal from thredUP, Kim Matsoukas from Vans and Steven Bethell from Bank & Vogue. All thought leaders in the sustainable fashion space. They covered how the brands are pivoting their business strategies, how sustainability will play a role in their businesses moving towards a new normal, and the silver linings they’re finding amidst the current state of the industry.

Despite coming from very different corners of the sustainable fashion space, each participant echoed that pre-COVID there was a lot of momentum for their sustainability strategies and no shortage of innovative projects in the pipeline for 2020. Derek was excited about the prospects, even when faced with the reality of the situation, “There was so much momentum approaching circularity, we were talking about science-based targets, regenerative agriculture, getting deep in our supply chains, recommerce and all these new business models. It was a really exciting time but here we are now, we’re two months into this global shutdown with the uncertainty that’s just been poured all over us”. We’re all in an entirely different boat than we were two months ago. The panelists noted how they were managing to pivot quickly to different strategies for connecting with their consumers.

For Sam at Thredup this meant abandoning campaigns surrounding events that had been cancelled, like Coachella and the Met Gala, in order to remain more relevant to the current situation “We were about to launch our annual resale report which will now be coming out in June, but we had to take a quick step back and ask “Is this relevant at this moment? Do people want to hear about this right now?”. But there’s still a lot that they’re working on and their resale platform is still appealing to consumers whether they’re wanting to shop, or are hoping to make some extra money during this tough financial time by sending in pieces from their closet. “As a business, we pride ourselves on democratizing sustainability and this is true now more than ever”.

At Bank & Vogue, the pivot unfolded naturally. Steven highlighted that because of an investment last spring in technology to sanitize post-consumer textiles for a project with Converse, manufacturing masks made a lot of sense for them. And he was quick to note that times like this is when innovators innovate”. Based on that attitude and their business model, Steven is already thinking ahead to how to solve some of the problems that might arise once the restrictions of COVID-19 dissipate. Lots of brands are now overwhelmed with inventory that may not fit into the new shopping habits that consumers have adopted during this time. And brands are already looking to Bank & Vogue for input on potential solutions, Steven commented: We’re getting a lot of phone calls from brands saying “We have a lot of overstock, do you have any suggestions of what we can do with them?” Even more, the world will have to figure out what to do with a lot of new waste streams that have popped up from restrictions set in place during the pandemic.

And over at Vans, the pandemic is taking hold in a bit of a different way. As part of VF Corp, one of the largest international apparel retailers, Kim says they’ve been feeling the impacts since January. Each one of our regions is at a different stage. The sustainability team is global as well and it’s been an interesting experience to have people be at a different stage while we’re all trying to get on the same page around this new strategy that we’re trying to build. Kim was quick to highlight that despite the uncertainty, their commitment to sustainability is unwavering. Climate change is, obviously, even with the pandemic, still, the most dangerous challenge that we’re going to have to face as a human race. Climate change is a slow-moving pandemic.  She noted that there is a link between our current circumstances and the importance of biodiversity within the supply chain, something that’s often put to the sidelines due to a lack of solid measurement tools.

“It’s very clear that pandemics are increased with the decrease in biodiversity. It’s not going to be enough to just say we can’t measure it. We are going to have to figure out ways to at least measure impact and try to figure out how to reduce the impact on biodiversity”

One thing the panel unanimously agreed on: sustainability isn’t going anywhere for their businesses. And based on their insights, post-COVID consumer habits might just favour sustainable brands above the rest. The pandemic has left everyone at home with a lot of time to reflect and to gain a more ingrained sense of mindfulness, especially when it comes to shopping on a tighter budget and as perspectives shift Sam notes It doesn’t have to be a choice between the planet and your wallet. You can have both”. With that in mind, now more than ever we are more aware of our inter-connectedness which may be the catalyst to move sustainability up on the priority list for a lot of us.

Even though Steven says the next few months will be messy and difficult as brands and supply chains try to restructure themselves to suit a post-COVID world, he’s still optimistic: I’m really hopeful that there will be a new way not just to communicate but to work as well, the tone has changed. The post-COVID tone feels a lot more human than pre-COVID.” Derek echoed that feeling “This could be one of the best times, my hope is that this is positive and we come out of this in a renewed way, that there is re-birth, and a re-energized kind of approach”. In their closing remarks, it seemed like all of our panelists found silver linings throughout this collective experience, Kim noted We’re not islands in ourselves and our actions affect other people and eventually they affect nature as well. It took a pandemic for some people to realize it.”

It’s hard to know how things will play out, but for those brands operating with sustainability at the forefront, positive change is still happening and the future is bright.



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