The Outside View: Looking Back at 2020’s Balancing Act

Last year hit fashion like a ton of bricks. But, in many ways, it was a more balanced year than we’ve ever had. Newton’s Third Law of Motion was in full effect: that is, for every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction. We had been riding high for decades, with little consequence. Last year showed us the reality of both our planet’s and humanity’s limits.

The Yin & Yang of Fashion in 2020

Fashion has always had a Dark Side. But, this year, no one could turn a blind eye. COVID-19’s abrupt stop to business last March revealed brands’ true colors. When companies failed to pay overseas manufacturers for their orders, the #PayUp campaign was launched — a naming and shaming of major brands and retailers that canceled orders to protect their bottom lines. Some brands caved under pressure, while others still haven’t paid for their orders. (If you’re curious, has kept a running list.)

Last year, forced Uighur labor in Xinjiang, China, was discovered and exposed, both in fiber harvest and garment manufacturing, among other industries. Human rights groups claimed that “virtually the entire” fashion industry was complicit, driving home the reality of modern slavery in our trade.

If 2019’s “Retail Apocalypse” — the closure of a record 14,000-plus stores — wasn’t enough, according to Retailsphere, 2020 saw a whopping 27,000 retail closures. A flurry of bankruptcies, too, hit the fashion scene due to stresses exacerbated by COVID-19.

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Fashion’s racist roots were unmasked following the killing of George Floyd and the increased momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. Brands and designers were challenged to reflect on and own up to their mistakes and commit to a new path of justice and equity — or risk being canceled altogether.

A last downside in 2020 was a setback for sustainability as the rental sector suffered. With weddings, proms and galas around the world canceled due to the pandemic, the demand for one-off formal event attire dwindled. Though likely not gone for good, rental companies are closing up physical shops and getting nimble during these trying times. Rent the Runway, for example, has partnered with ThredUp to sell off some of their older rental inventory.

Last year wasn’t all doom and gloom: there was light shining to counteract the darkness. First of all, consumer values gained depth, with health, security, sustainability and comfort taking center stage. Customers are becoming more aware of the long-term impacts of their everyday choices and using that consciousness in their purchasing decisions.

Technology was 2020’s savior, as stores pivoted from physical to virtual. Fashion week debuted online, for both celebs and the general public to enjoy, and 3-D modeling software was finally adopted by brands after years of balking at price and hesitance to change.

Regenerative agriculture was on the rise in 2020 — both in awareness of its benefits and the adoption of its farming practices. A certification program was established and even General Mills has made commitments in an effort to reduce and even reverse the greenhouse gas impacts of farming.

With the industry’s racist reckoning in June came awareness and swift change. The CFDA laid out a comprehensive plan in an effort to tackle fashion’s systemic issues. More brands are looking into their supply chains to see where they can spot exploitation and lack of representation and equity. And more companies are being held accountable by individuals and rights organizations.

A last positive spin in 2020 was resourcefulness. Upcycling hit the (virtual) runways with full force and clothing resale continued its upward trajectory. The value of the apparel resale market is projected to overtake traditional retail over the next decade! There is no longer any stigma associated with secondhand, with both luxury outlets like The RealReal and accessible mainstream outlets like ThredUp to choose from.

Lessons Learned

For many businesses, 2020 presented a crash course in sustainability. We learned to balance domestic and international manufacturing to mitigate risk. The importance of a strong e-commerce platform and the ability to plan for and manage inventory was reinforced.

We learned to collaborate — with other brands and industries — to meet PPE demands. Our competitors became co-creators as we solved one another’s problems of excess inventory and changing market conditions. The industry saw inklings of compassion and solidarity replace the unrelenting cutthroat toxicity of fashion’s past. We were shown that collaboration spreads both risk and wealth, so that when we take those things on together, everyone can win.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned in 2020 was that sustainability means inclusion. If we want to change everything, it is going to take everyone. That means offering fashion that caters to all sizes, genders, races, abilities, ages and budgets. If it sounds impossible, it’s not. This week, Seed to Style — the first size-inclusive, completely sustainable fashion brand — will launch on QVC. Sustainable fashion is no longer niche — and accessibility is the key to its rising ubiquity.

2021 Rebirth: How do we empower the next chapter?

We enter this new year with fresh tools in our belt. We’ve strengthened our ability to use digital technology as a primary channel for doing business. By accepting newness, however uncomfortable, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can adapt as better solutions emerge. We’ve made long-overdue changes to our organizations and streamlined processes.

On a global level, our industry has begun to catch up with other industries — with innovations in automation, robotics, and on-demand manufacturing. We have access to 3-D technology for virtual fittings and sampling. We’re evolving together at an alarming rate — something we should have done sooner, but did not prove imperative until now.

As we look ahead at a bright 2021, we have a new administration that supports progress toward a sustainable future. By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, already we have an indication of a group effort toward a common goal. If we apply the wisdom we gained last year to the decisions we make in 2021, our industry can be restored, humanity can thrive, and our planet can heal. Let’s do this!


Marci Zaroff coined the term “eco-fashion” and is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial eco-preneur.


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