Buying a new pair of shoes, refreshing our wardrobe, or adding the must-have clothing item of the season was something we used to do regularly. We visited boutiques, clothing stores, apparel shops, and shopped online. However, all of this has changed since the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
In early March, government authorities around the world instructed people to stay at home. Stores and shops were closed with the exception of essential businesses. Working from home and homeschooling is slowly becoming the new normal. Clothes and other luxury items such as leather handbags, silk scarves, or neckties are items that people stopped thinking about altogether.
The situation in the retail sector has been particularly dire due to Covid-19. Many small businesses and workshops worldwide have had to close for good. With an 8.7% drop in U.S. retail spending in March, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the decline was far greater than the worst month registered previously, which was in the fall of 2008, during the financial crisis. It coincides with a surge in unemployment claims and an overall collapse of the economy.
In such a negative context, the most important question remains: how quickly can spending bounce back and which businesses will survive until then? After all, those businesses that were already struggling before the pandemic and could not accommodate online sales during this time will face a much harder challenge to stay in business.
People who lost their jobs won’t be able to resume spending once businesses reopen. And even individuals who do still have money to spend will probably think twice before engaging in face-to-face contact, having a meal at a restaurant, trying on a new garment or buying a new leather belt at a mall full of people. According to experts in the apparel industry, the full impact on the industry is still unknown.
In Italy, the clothing and accessories sector has been severely affected. During the first week of March, mills, designers, workshops, and printing facilities had to shut their doors. Even women who used to sew at home had to stop working on new garments!
And all of this occurred in a context where the silk and textile sector, much of it based in and around Como, has suffered greatly over the last 20 years due to the cheap production of silk elsewhere. As part of the European Union, Italian companies have to follow strict rules and regulations to ensure the workplace is ethical, humane and safe, as well as adhering to low-impact or sustainable environmental practices and ensuring employees receive proper wages and benefits.
Let’s take an Italian company, Elizabetta, as an example. The company is a small designer boutique that produces leather handbags and silk scarves, ties and textile accessories for women and men.
The company produces its fabrics and leather products not only according to EU regulations, but also using non-toxic dyes, renewable energy and recycled water in adherence to principles of eco-sustainability. They only partner with manufacturers who treat their employees well.
As a result, their products are more expensive than the silk scarves and leather bags produced in places where these rules and regulations either do not exist or can be easily circumvented. Big retail stores and online shops offer lots of fake Italian products whose cost is far below market value, making it increasingly difficult for companies with authentic Italian-made products to compete and sell their goods.
One of the companies Elizabetta works with, located in Como, produces textiles and scarves for tiny boutiques as well as for extremely high-end brands. Their market is mostly in Europe, Australia, and Asia, and they have just started allowing their employees to trickle back to work as the Covid -19 restrictions are starting to be lifted. Still, their business is far from what it used to be just 15 years ago as the market has been flooded with cheap, fake Italian goods.
But there can be some silver linings to the Covid-19 crisis in the textile industry and retail in general. Over the last few months, we’ve all heard the sound of birds in our neighborhoods, enjoyed bluer skies than we’ve seen in years, and watched videos of wild animals in the middle of big cities. People around the world have gathered on their balconies to thank healthcare workers, our new “everyday heroes”, and a renewed sense of solidarity with the poor and the newly unemployed has come to light.
All of this represents a growing awareness when it comes to environmental and social issues. If we consumers take these lessons to heart, small businesses whose core values revolve around respect for people and Mother Earth just might be able to pull through.
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