Sustainable Fashion

Everything you want to know about the sustainability of the textile and fashion industry

COVID-19 and the Textile/Fashion Industry: Facts and Projections

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of millions of people around the world, whether it be physically, emotionally, economically and/or all combined. In the economic sense, those in the textile and fashion industries have been among the most significantly impacted by the implications of the pandemic. 

COVID-19, Fashion and Textiles

The pervasiveness of the textile and fashion industry cannot be overstated. Euromonitor International reported that the value of the international fashion retail market was $1.78 trillion in the year 2019.1 Despite its function in the everyday lives of people across the world, industry sources say that the fashion industry has been most adversely affected of all consumer good industries globally.2 Despite a noted transition from in-person to online shopping as a result of social restrictions, online clothing sales are down by up to 30-40% in the United States.3 In total, the reduction in international sales experienced by the fashion industry between March and April 2020 was reported to be as high as 70%.4 

Every level of the fashion industry has been affected by these financial impacts, from production and retail through to demand.5 Sourcing executives have responded to the crisis by cancelling and reducing orders, to the detriment of suppliers.6 In a survey of over 500 manufacturers, 86% reported being significantly impacted by cancelled or suspended orders.2 Some brands have even gone so far as to deny responsibility for orders that have already been produced, under the cover of contract emergency provisions.7 This has led to an inability of some suppliers to fully compensate their workers.7

By the end of May 2020, garment factories in Bangladesh alone had experienced approximately $1.5 billion worth of order cancellations.4 Forbes estimates that these cancelled orders have impacted a minimum of 1.2 million workers throughout the country.8 While the case of Bangladesh may be the most extreme, the financial impact of the pandemic has been felt by the textile industry in countries throughout the world. In Pakistan, there has been a severe reduction in exports and a significant increase in unemployment, and similarly exports are anticipated to decline for the entire year of 2020 in Nicaragua.9


Since the outset of the pandemic, garment workers have faced a variety of devastating issues such as wage losses, layoffs and enduring unsafe working conditions.10 According to the International Labor Organization, up to 25 million jobs could be lost due to the pandemic,11 and massive layoffs have already occurred in several countries.12 Estimates put the number of garment workers laid off across Asia specifically at nearly 110,000 Cambodians, 2.1 million people in Indonesia and close to 1 million in Bangladesh.12 While in certain instances economic support is available to workers that have lost their jobs, this is definitely not consistently implemented or provided for every case. Over 80% of suppliers that lost contracts in Bangladesh claimed to be unable to provide severance pay amidst worker dismissals.

Even for those able to keep their jobs, problems have continued to arise. Those who continue to work are often at risk of infection in factories where social distancing is proven extremely difficult to maintain.11 Even rigorous safety measures may fail to protect workers that are called back to factories.12 As restrictions have begun to loosen, certain protocols put in place to protect people from the virus have been co-opted by factory owners to manipulate their workforce; for example, some employers have used mobility restrictions to fire their employees when they are unable to show up for work.12 Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, food insecurity and nutritional deficiencies were daily faced challenges among many garment workers, and the loss of income will only serve to exacerbate these types of ongoing difficulties.12 

Certain groups of garment workers are particularly affected by these and other related problems. Women compose the majority of the garment sector workforce and are uniquely affected by the COVID crisis.11 Many have had to take on the burden of additional and often unpaid work, such as childcare, and face added concerns due to an increased risk of gender-based violence resulting from economic insecurity.11 As part of a needs assessment, female garment workers in Bangladesh have cited a variety of concerns regarding the possible impacts of COVID-19, including food shortages, mobility restrictions, financial instability and sickness.13 Of those female workers who participated in this needs assessment, 91% reported experiencing mental pressures and anxiety about their work.13

To address some of the concerns faced by garment factory workers, the International Apparel Federation (IAF) has called upon stakeholders within the industry to show solidarity for workers throughout the supply chain by upholding their contracts and maintaining financial support.14 These calls to action are being echoed by governments and workers’ rights groups throughout affected nations. Specifically in India, the textile minister released an urgent appeal to fashion buying houses to refrain from cancelling orders in order to protect the rights of workers.15 The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) has requested stakeholder support, pleading with buyers to uphold existing contracts in order to better support workers.16 

Looking Forward

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates a cost of $1 trillion to the global economy as a result of the pandemic, and a reduction of global foreign direct investment of 5 to 15%.9 The current financial situation in the textile and fashion industry is bleak and projections are not optimistic. It is anticipated that fashion will be hit hardest in the second quarter of the year 2020, when experts say there could be a reduction in sourcing volumes of 20% or more.6 In the McKinsey Global Fashion Index review, it was estimated that revenues for the apparel and footwear sectors will decrease by between 27 and 30% on the year, after steadily increasing for half a decade.6

While the current situation is dire, it is the product of unsustainable business practices that have been perpetuated in the textile and fashion industry for decades.10 Garment supply chains are designed to maximize corporate profits while exploiting workers through low wages and suboptimal working conditions.11 In countries with limited social protections for workers, fashion brands have profited by paying employees low wages that often equate to approximately only one third of a standard living wage.10 

However, the financial struggle currently being faced by fashion companies worldwide provides an opportunity to implement positive changes in order to move forward. The common supply-and-demand business model is proving to be inefficient, as overproduction is leaving companies with surpluses of excess garments.3 Even prior to the pandemic, approximately 70% of all garments produced ended up in landfill dumps due to overproduction.17 To address this, brands may begin to consider transitioning to an on-demand production model, in which clothes are only made after they are sold to distributors; this would help reduce overall waste, and in some cases, may reduce overall costs as well.3 Other proposed solutions to the issue of oversupply include shifting to more local production and reducing the number of fashion seasons in order to support the release of fewer collections throughout the year.3  

In the short term, companies that will be least affected by the adverse impacts of the pandemic will be the ones that have already incorporated sustainability into their business practices.2 For years now, consumer interest in sustainability has been steadily increasing. This can be seen in the threefold increase of internet searches for ‘sustainable fashion’ reported between the years 2016 to 2019, which has only accelerated further during the pandemic.3 Consumer behavior is showing patterns towards spending less on clothes coupled by an increasing interest on placing a higher value on quality and ethical production practices.2 Brands engaged in fast fashion will have to shift gears toward social and environmental responsibility if they wish to succeed moving forward to satisfy consumers.2 Importantly, the transition toward sustainability in fashion will not be driven by the industry itself alone; governments must also step up to mandate more environmentally-responsible business practices in order for these changes to become universal, regulated and common practice.17 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused financial devastation at all levels of the fashion supply chain. If companies are wise, they will use this opportunity to create positive steps and instill lasting and much needed change. Hopefully, the industry, at the systemic level, will take actions towards actively participating in sustainability measures, fully commiting to the protection and support of workers at all levels of the supply chain, and provide best practices and products to consumers worldwide.5


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  4. UN Environment Programme. (2020, June 16). On trend: Sustainable fashion in the wake of COVID-19. Retrieved from:
  5. McIntosh, S. (2020, April 30). Coronavirus: Why the fashion industry faces an ‘existential crisis’. BBC News. Retrieved from:
  6. Berg, A., Haug, L., Hedrich, S., & Magnus, K.-H. (2020, May 6). Time for change: How to use the crisis to make fashion sourcing more agile and sustainable. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from: 
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  8. Elle. (2020, May 12). How the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the fashion industry. Retrieved from:
  9. Satapathy, D. (2020, March 21). COVID-19 adversely hits textile, apparel, fashion sectors. Fibre2Fashion News Desk (DS).Retrieved from:
  10. Clean Clothes Campaign. (2020, June 1). Garment workers need apparel companies’ assurance that they will be paid during this crisis. Retrieved from:
  11. Sutcliffe, J. (2020, April 8). COVID-19 and the garment industry: Protect workers, transform the industry. Development Blog. Retrieved from:
  12. Asia Floor Wage. (May 2020). The emperor has no clothes – Garment supply chains in the time of the pandemic. Retrieved from:
  13. Care Evaluations. (2020, April 16). Rapid Analysis: How are female garment workers during COVID-19. Retrieved from:
  14. Fashion United. (2020, March 25). IAF urges solidarity in apparel supply chain. Retrieved from:
  15. Tagra, D. (2020, March 25). Indian textile minister urges buyers and buying houses to not cancel orders. Apparel Resources. Retrieved from:
  16. Nika, C. (2020, March 25). GMAC appeals to stakeholders to join hand to tackle manufacturing woes caused by Coronavirus. Khmer Times. Retrieved from:
  17. Cegielski, E. (2020, May 18). How the current crisis could impact the future of fashion forever. Worth. Retrieved from: