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Are clothes about to get more expensive?

The fashion industry is mulling big changes that could impact everything from its carbon footprint to how much things cost.

Are clothes about to get more expensive?
[Photos: Neydtstock/iStock, Sergey Pesterev/Unsplash, Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash]

Have you ever thought about how weird it is that department stores start displaying swimwear in March and winter coats in August? For decades, brands have sold clothes months before they’re in season, which doesn’t line up with consumers’ actual needs and contributes to the industry’s tremendous waste.

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But the system may be on the cusp of change. Over the past week, hundreds of stakeholders in the fashion industry—including Tory Burch, Rodarte, Chloe, Thom Browne, Nordstrom, and the London College of Fashion—have signed on to an “Open Letter to the Fashion Industry,” which advocates for selling clothes in the seasons that people actually wear them. To the average consumer, that might seem like an insignificant shift, but it could have big consequences on the price of products and their impact on the planet.

Many high-end designers had been looking to adjust the fashion calendar for years, but COVID-19 has given them an opportunity to reset. As I reported early in the crisis, the pandemic caused delays in the supply chain, since clothing factories in China and Italy were forced to shutter in February and March. As a result, fall collections are expected to be delivered in the fall, rather than the summer as they normally would. Ordinarily, those collections would go on sale in November to make room for the spring collections. But designers began discussing what might happen if they instead sold those products in the spring, when customers would actually wear them. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait until the new year?” designer Dries Van Noten told The New York Times. “And then to have the courage to keep the rhythm we establish now?”

The letter itself was a result of a Zoom call between Lane Crawford CEO Andrew Keith and Van Noten in early April. It went live on May 12 and within a week, hundreds of executives and designers had signed on. The letter itself isn’t binding, nor does it offer many details about how exactly the new system would work. In other words, the letter isn’t a playbook for the transformation of the fashion industry, but rather a general acknowledgement that the current crisis is an opportunity to fix some major flaws.

What could this mean for the average consumer? For one thing, there’s likely to a be a lot less discounting. Within the current system, brands tend to put items on sale when they’re still very much in demand, in order to make room for the next season’s products. (Many winter coats go on sale before winter weather is actually over.) This has trained consumers to wait for sales and expect to buy products at cheap, discounted prices. As a result, clothing prices have consistently decreased over the last few  decades.

But cheap clothes come at a high cost to the planet. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of clothes produced around the world doubled from 50 billion to 100 billion, and many consumers now wear clothes just a handful of times before throwing them out. The environmental ramifications of this overproduction and overconsumption have been disastrous; the carbon footprint of the fashion industry is larger than that of maritime shipping and international air travel combined.

The letter addresses both the issues of discounting and sustainability. The stakeholders who have signed on say they’ll wait until the end of the season to discount their products. This is good for the brands, for sure, since it allows them to make higher margins on their clothes. But it could potentially address overconsumption as well, since consumers will have to be more judicious with how they spend their money.

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It’s unclear whether this letter will actually result in real change. But at least there is widespread acknowledgement that change is necessary and that now might be the right moment to redesign the industry.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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