Agents of Change

Could 2020 be the year of retail enlightenment?
Posted September 18, 2020

So many have lamented the challenges and misfortunes of 2020, calling it the worst year ever. And who could argue as we’ve been besieged by an insidious virus, divisive social unrest, environmental disasters and corrosive political upheaval. But is it possible that this is the year that will be recognized as the pivot point, when we began to turn things around?

The road to change naturally begins with recognition, awareness and acknowledgement. The dreaded coronavirus has impacted our physical and mental health, shuttered our economy and closed our schools, while political and social discord have etched deep chasms of division. Theaters lay dark, stadiums are silent and famed retail corridors lay fallow, empty and boarded up. While all may seem bleak, is this in fact an awakening, a reckoning, a harbinger of change? Is this the year that we recognize and acknowledge our overindulgences, our wasteful excesses and our lack of responsibility?

Soon after the Industrial Revolution, America’s appetite for consumerism grew exponentially. Wants and desires became needs and musts. Soon, people hungered for more and more. They wanted more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow than today. Emily Fogg Meade wrote, “A magnitude of goods were produced to satisfy the needs that no one knew they had. Consumers wanted berry spoons, mustard spoons, sugar spoons and soup spoons in ever increasing variety.” 

At a display convention in 1923, radio personality Helen Landon Cass said of this newfound lust for consumerism, “Sell them what they longed for and hoped for. Sell them this hope, and you won’t have to worry about selling the goods. Sell them their dreams.”

We might consider that today our dreams have morphed into a collective nightmare as our consumptive instincts continue to adversely impact the planet. Since the 1960s, Americans have tripled their purchases of new apparel. Naturally this exponential growth has triggered an increased need for resources as well as enhanced and faster production processes. Consider that each year, people around the world purchase more than 80 billion articles of clothing. This clearly has increased global pollution and exacerbated the effects of climate change.

While the fashion industry is not the most egregious polluter in the world as some claim, it is certainly one of the major polluting industries after oil, energy and transportation. We’ve been speaking about sustainability in fashion and retail long before the pandemic struck, and we did in fact begin to implement some positive changes. But the sense of urgency clearly wasn't shared by all.

Is 2020 the year where we implement accelerated strategies that go beyond the obvious and penetrate deeper in to the depths of the issue? Is this the year we recognize that it’s not just a matter of the survivability of business, but also a matter of moral responsibility?

It’s time that we develop a sincere, mutually beneficial relationship with the environment. To put it into transactional terms, it’s time we monetize this dynamic and determine how much we owe Mother Nature for the negative impact we’ve had on the environment. If Mother Nature sent you an invoice, what would your financial responsibility be? How large a check would you have to write? Think in terms of E-P&L, environmental profit and loss.

As retailers respond to the challenges of the day, they must develop top-down solutions and achieve total company buy-in, making sustainability a corporate priority. Everyone from within the organization to its extended family of partners with whom they do business, must take ownership and encourage more sustainable practices when doing their job. Moreover, the fashion and retail industries must develop a data-driven approach to sustainability. By analyzing data, they can measure the impact they've had on the environment. This knowledge will allow companies to prioritize how to allocate resources to achieve critical goals.

We need to recognize the environmental gauges such as air pollution, water pollution, CO2 emissions and land use. This is systemic not only throughout the industry, but also throughout our culture. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is a must as retailers turn to their partners to work together, from the supply chain to point of purchase. One silver lining of the pandemic is that more and more brands are recognizing this reality, thereby promoting an acceleration of sustainability awareness.

In brick-and-mortar environments, retailers are calming consumer fears relative to the pandemic by instituting defined CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) protocols. In this next new normal, as retailers struggle to save their businesses, they must dismiss fear, anxiety and uncertainty. They must evaluate the environmental, social and ethical impact of everything that they do. They must embrace a shift from the traditional fashion model of season to season to a more flexible model featuring fewer fashion shows, more virtual showrooms, digital innovation, virtual fittings, personalized digital look books, virtual store walkthroughs and distance shopping.

To succeed in today’s environment it’s important to be relevant to all customers. We’re in the moment and the moment demands that we maintain our drive and enthusiasm while doing things in a different way. Build trust by focusing on quality rather than quantity. We’ve made many mistakes along the way, but now every business and every brand can be an agent of change. We’re all in this together, and together we will move forward and rise above the fray.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.