If you’ve dipped your toe in the online sustainable fashion space even once in the past few weeks, chances are you’ve seen post after post stating: “Support small businesses.”
Activists, celebrities, NGOs and individuals have all been quick to amplify small brands’ calls for support – both for their existing products and services, and for the new community initiatives that so many have pivoted to deliver to the most vulnerable in their local areas.
And rightly so. The Financial Times reports that the global economy is set for a contraction of up to 35%, the worst since the Great Depression, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The shocks of this impact, history tells us, will be disproportionately felt by small businesses.
In the fallout of the 2008 financial crash, more than 170,000 small businesses are believed to have closed in the US alone. Comparatively, around 27,000 corporations filed for insolvency globally.
There are several reasons for this disparity and they have been well-analyzed by economists. Small businesses typically operate with lower profits yet higher costs because they are unable to benefit from economies of scale. They usually have smaller reserves, meaning many rely on continued sales where corporates can weather slumps with ease. They rarely have billionaire owners that can provide rapid bailouts, or the luxury of lobbying for a government bailout.
But the multitude of reasons for supporting small businesses provides, thankfully, a longer list than that of the challenges these brands are now facing. Regarding fashion specifically, shopping small…
1. Can fight against the over-consumption of resources
Humans currently consume natural resources almost twice as rapidly as they are replenished, and fashion plays no small role in this. More than 100 billion pieces of clothing and 20 billion shoes are manufactured annually, the UN estimates.
By choosing smaller businesses—which manufacture less to begin with, and many of which operate on a made-to-order or limited-edition basis—you are voting against these large-scale “take, make, dispose” systems.
Additionally, while most physical fast fashion stores stock new collections every week or month (and online giants like Fashion Nova every day) small businesses tend to stick to seasonal collections, providing a welcome antidote to messaging that tells us we always need new, now.
2. Can support emerging business models
The smaller a brand is, the more agile it can be when it comes to testing innovations like rental, repair, customization, reusable packaging, and so on. It is, of course, harder to keep track of 2 million reusable mailing bags than 200.
Supporting small businesses with eco-friendly models at their core sends a strong message to the big players: “You’re not moving fast enough to meet my standards.”
3. Can amplify support for transparent and ethical supply chains
Fashion Revolution has proven that no big fashion brands are fully transparent about their supply chain activity. They simply cannot guarantee that the making of their garments is, at all stages, free from human rights abuses or environmental degradation. Monitoring complex global supply chains is a mammoth task which, even with modern audits and the help of technologies such as digital payment and satellite mapping, is never finished.
On the flip side, many small fashion brands have full visibility on their supply chains, due to how small and localized they are. British brand Zola Amour, for example, knows exactly where its garment workers are and what they are paid at any one time, because there are only two of them: mother and daughter team Mims and Emily.
The difference between how large and small fashion businesses support their supply chain has been thrown under the spotlight by Covid-19. Asos, Amazon, and Boohoo continue to operate warehouses on full staff levels—reportedly, in many cases, without enough PPE or hand sanitizers. They continue to withhold payment for suppliers overseas. No such horror stories have yet come from micro businesses.
4. Will keep your local economy vibrant
Out of every dollar spent at chain stores, only 43 cents will stay in the community. The proportion stands at 68 cents for small businesses.
Keeping money locally will help your community to survive, thrive, and not look like a cookie-cutter version of every other town post-pandemic. Most of us will be feeling an extra sense of community duty presently, which is something we surely want to carry into the exit plan stage and beyond.
5. Will (guaranteed) make someone’s day
To big fashion brands, a sale is just a number to add to the finance books. To small businesses, it can mean the difference between the owner affording groceries that week or not.
In return, small fashion brands usually strive to go the extra mile for their customers. Shop big and you may get a coupon on your receipt if you’re lucky. Shop small and you may well get complimentary tailoring, sizing and styling advice, and a coupon in your emails every few months.
You only need look in the back room of any small fashion brand at break time to know that the well-circulated Tweet “every time you shop small, someone does a happy dance” rings true.
This is all well and good to say, but it would be hard to deny that increasing calls to “buy, buy buy,” whether they come from small brands or not, can seem out of place at a time when many are losing sources of income. When you’re worried about making rent or taking detailed stock of your utility and grocery costs, new fashion is hardly an essential.
The good news here is that small brands are far easier to support for free than their bigger counterparts. A social media follow is a drop in the ocean for Asos or Urban Outfitters, but a cause for celebration for small brands. A Google or Facebook review takes a few minutes to leave, but can make or break multiple sales for the little guys. Anecdotally, many small brands are also seeking newsletter sign-ups and podcast listens at this time, with several creating digital content to bring their communities together.
As we weather this unprecedented situation, many with the privilege to do so are questioning what kind of world they would like to go back to once the pause button is lifted. What parts of “normal” are worth returning to, and which should be re-written.
National discussions around Green New Deals and donut economics are underway; big questions are being asked surrounding which products are essential and which roles are key. While these decisions ultimately lay at the feet of those in power, we all have a voice. Supporting small businesses now—whether we buy or not—will actively create a post-recovery world which is more ethical, connected and in-tune with nature; a world which is now more necessary to build than ever.