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LONDON – After the annus horribilis that was 2020, most people we talk to seem to be looking to 2021 with an air of cautious optimism.

The roll-out of vaccines for the coronavirus pandemic means that at least there is now light at the end of the tunnel, although there seems to be a complete lack of consensus about when ‘business as usual’ might resume. Is summer too optimistic? We can but hope.

In the meantime, here we take a brief look at the year ahead, focusing on five issues which we believe will be high on the agenda of the apparel industry in 2021.

We also want to take this chance to wish all our readers a happy new year and the best wishes for 2021.

A year of consolidation

In 2020 we waved goodbye to a number of fashion brands and department store retailers, while virtually all major brands announced store closures, cuts and the continuation of a broader dynamic which is seeing more businesses switch to online.

This trend looks set to continue in 2021. Some retailers barely limped over the finishing line in 2020 and were not helped by country-wide lockdowns in the run up to Christmas, traditionally their busiest time of the year.

In 2021, we expect the full impact and economic fallout from the coronavirus to be felt, as a rationalisation of the global apparel industry continues.

We expect an increase in mergers and – more pertinently – acquisitions as more financially secure brands rake over the carcasses of those which have fallen into administration. The major beneficiaries will be online-only retailers such as Asos, Zalando and Boohoo. Amazon will also extend its influence into the fashion space, the business having thrived during 2020.

Sourcing headaches

The issue of cotton sourcing in the wake of a US ban on the import of products containing Xinjiang cotton (expect more to follow the US’s lead this year) will begin to bite for brands in 2021. In July 2020, a 180-strong coalition of civil society organisations and trade unions called on global apparel brands to give a 12-month timeframe to fully extract their supply chains from XUAR. They claimed brands with ongoing supply chain ties with the Uyghur region of China (XUAR), are ‘complicit’ in human rights atrocities among Uyghurs and other Muslim people of Xinjiang.

These groups are not letting up and now have US legislators on their side, as well as the EU and UN, both of which have condemned the actions of China in Xinjiang.

Just before Christmas, the Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition wrote to 16 consumer retailers amid reports that brands including Nike have been lobbying to weaken the US’s Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act. The brands are being urged to disclose whether they are lobbying against proposed US laws designed to end the use of Uyghur forced labour in corporate supply chains.

There appears to be no hiding place for brands on this issue. Those using organic cotton face a particular challenge, given that around one sixth of all organic cotton is grown in Xinjiang.

Year of reckoning for the SAC

During 2020, we led reporting on the issue of the Higg MSI of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and, particularly, the fact that natural fibres sectors such as alpaca wool and silk feel they are being misrepresented by the Higg MSI.

The SAC described our work as a “coordinated campaign of critique,” and we get the impression it did not mean this in a complimentary way.

While the focus in 2020 was on the Higg MSI, the issue at play here is much broader. The SAC is increasingly looking to push its tools in the apparel industry and present itself as the standard-bearer for sustainability. Fast fashion retailers such as Zalando and Gap are on board, and the SAC itself has already hinted at major announcements in 2021 which will see its tools move towards becoming consumer-facing.

The SAC has been around for the best part of a decade now. Yet 2020 was, to our mind, the first time its tools had been the subject of serious scrutiny. Our view was – and continues to be – that the issue of sustainability is far too important to be framed solely by a private group of consultants based in San Francisco. The SAC lacks full transparency and accountability and the work it does – essentially measuring sustainability – should be entirely and wholly independent of the fashion industry; not funded by it. That way madness lies.

We will continue to debate these issues and report critically and openly on the SAC during 2021. We hope the SAC will engage with us and debate these key industry issues transparently and out in the open, where they belong.

Small can be beautiful

One of the more gratifying aspects of 2020 (and let’s be honest, there were slim pickings here) was the emergence and success of smaller, niche players in the apparel industry. Perhaps it was the sense of having nothing to lose with a global pandemic going on in the background which prompted the growth in this space. Or maybe the sustainability space is becoming polarised between those who want to stick with the status quo, where big brands have been talking big on sustainability yet doing little or nothing for years; and smaller, artisan players, which in many cases have been established by people who have worked for larger brands previously and become disillusioned with the dearth of meaningful action on sustainability issues. In 2020 we ran a special report on emerging names in the sustainable fashion space whom we believe are doing great things. Many of the aforementioned smaller players can be found in the report, which you can read here. Expect to hear much more of them in 2021.

Less travel: a permanent move?

Having spent several years doing rather more flying than I’d prefer up until 2020, one thing I didn’t miss last year was less travel. And yet, by the close of the year, like many I was beginning to miss the personal interaction one gets from face-to-face meetings or visiting physical events. Doing things over Zoom and the like just isn’t the same is it?

That said, there is much talk that working from home or remote working is here to stay, in some form at least, moving beyond 2020. The genie is out of the bottle here in that businesses have realised that many staff are more productive away from the distractions of the office. Meanwhile, conference and events planners have been very successful in migrating events online. Online events might not be the same as the real thing but the benefit in digital is that one can attend more events, dip in and out of them and generally pick and choose them as one sees fit.

The message in all this is that, even if we do achieve business as usual in 2021, the shift to doing events, conferences, seminars and other meetings online may well be here to stay – at least in some form.

In the textile and apparel space, we expect to see a rationalisation of what was, in any case, a bloated events and exhibitions market. The upside of this is that large events cost a huge amount to run as well as having a massive carbon footprint. As far as the former is concerned, this may mean smaller players with something different to say might get a look in on this space and the market generally will get a much needed shake-up.

That can never be a bad thing.

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