Em Poncia explores how the Ukraine War might impact fashion – beyond the obvious and horrible impact on the lives of those living in the country.
When the news broke that Russia had invaded Ukraine on February 24th 2022, shockwaves were felt worldwide. Now, nearly five months later, as the bloody conflict in that region rages on, unaffected countries continue to try and find ways to support Ukraine. The most terrible consequences have been felt by people living and working in Ukraine, but perhaps looking at the war’s wider consequences in a global context can shed light on the nature of the conflict as something which involves not just the two warring countries, but has material and ethical concerns for all.
Sanctions and Sales
Following Putin’s decision to invade, a series of international sanctions were imposed on Russia as signifiers of support for Ukraine. Russian banks were banned, the international bank Swift ceased operations there, and many countries ceased buying Russian oil. Specifically related to the garment industry, high street and luxury brands also stopped operating as an indication of solidarity.
This withdrawal is perhaps the most tangible of the effects of the war on the fashion industry, with sales ultimately dropping. However, it is also not the most effective indication of the full effects, with statistics showing that British retailers never had an overwhelming consumer base in Russia to begin with: the Boohoo Group reported that Russia comprises less than 0.1% of their sales, for example. This number is much higher in the luxury arena, with Russia and Ukraine together accounting for 4-5% of luxury sales. However, neither of these numbers are earth-shattering, suggesting that the industry has not suffered much in the wake of this conflict.
However, the impact of sanctions runs deeper than the overall reduction in consumer base. Russia’s biggest export is crude oil, and prices have been driven up due to scarcity following the decision to longer buy Russian exports. This impacts the fashion industry in two ways: firstly, lack of oil means lack of fuel and affects the abilities of companies to ship their products, and secondly, crude oil is a key component in the production of synthetic fibres, from which a large amount of clothes are made.
Russia’s dominance in the oil industry and the problems this has caused have thrown the urgency of alternative, eco-friendly, power-sources into light.
Furthermore, it can serve as a warning sign against allowing any power monopoly over an industry; the stability Russia has in the knowledge that their oil exports are relied on by large swathes of the earth’s population is worrying.
According to the Ukrainian government, the country is home to 2,500 clothing and textile factories, 240,000 industry employees, and the garment industry comprises 80-90% of the country’s exports. Therefore, as industry became impossible to continue and companies pulled out of production there, many in Ukraine have lost their livelihoods.
This, however, is not the full picture when it comes to Ukrainian fashion production. Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, the fact that the government had to install itself completely from scratch has meant that some untoward business has been allowed to occur. Much of the operations of the fashion industry operate on the ‘gray market’, a.k.a. officially off the books but not entirely illicitly.
This means that not only can the true extent of the garment industry’s presence in Ukraine not be known, but that sweatshops with unsafe and illegal conditions were common prior to the invasion. A Vice report found that the lead organiser of Kyiv’s underground rave scene said that it had become cheaper to produce clothing in Ukraine than in China. The fact that these sweatshops are not generally known about means that many companies can drive up their prices by putting ‘Made in Europe’ on their label, leading their consumers to believe that the pieces were made ethically.
Moreover, companies that previously did their production in Ukraine are being forced to find other factories that they can trust to make their products. This will be potentially damaging to the
Ukrainian industry as relationships that are formed with factories elsewhere will be difficult to break when production is once again possible in Ukraine. It also means that many brands are struggling to relocate their business.
So many companies had production in the country that many are fighting for the same production slots in new factories, leading to production and shipping delays.
Equally, multiple Asian countries where a lot of production is based rely on exports from both Ukraine and Russia, which has impacted the ability to source from these areas. Egypt, India, Turkey, and China have all been unable to source coal, oil, and food supplies that they normally do. Neighbouring manufacturing countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are also at risk, and retailers such as Primark source from these areas. UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) forecasts a 10% rise in consumer price for textiles and leather products because of such repercussions, but this price could realistically be far higher when raw material and labour costs are included in the equation.
Ultimately, the issues that production in the fashion industry faces highlight just how far-reaching the consequences of this war are, and the life-threatening repercussions they will have on both Ukranians and people in connected and neighbouring countries.
On a more positive note, many large fashion houses and brands are donating time, money, and resources to aid the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis. For example, global luxury giant Kering which heads up brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, and Alexander McQueen has pledged a significant donation to support refugees that have fled Ukraine. Equally, Balenciaga dedicated its social media to the incident and have made a donation to the World Food Programme. The brand came out with a line in partnership with the World Food
Programme in 2018, and continues it to this day. Gucci has given $500,000 to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).
These donations are perhaps indicative of a fashion industry that cares about its global community, something that is heartening in light of the situation.
The effects of the war in Ukraine have been felt on a massive global scale, but nowhere more acutely than Ukraine itself, with millions of people displaced, suffering, or killed. Looking at the effect of the conflict on the fashion industry forces a recognition both of how our own practices aid their cause, and how perhaps the garment industry can be more careful about how it treats workers whose livelihoods revolve around the industry. The war has far-reaching consequences that should be used to wake us up to our responsibilities as global citizens.
While fashion is important and, of course, our bread and butter here at London Runway, it’s obviously not the be all and end all. It is certainly not more important than life itself. In the face of the loss of life, life-changing injuries, and the loss of homes and livelihoods that so many Ukrainians face, the effect on the fashion industry is not comparable at all.
But if you’re burying your head in the sand and believing that a war in a whole different country has no effect at all on your life, it might be time to think again.
What happens there affects us all, not just in terms of industry but also in politics and ethics – Ukraine will remember who stood by and did nothing when all of this is over.
You can read more of Em’s work on her Twitter @emponcia