Fast fashion and COVID-19: a story of exploitation and opportunism – Labour Article
Fast fashion brands such as Pretty Little Thing, Missguided, or Boohoo are staples of uni culture. They provide cheap, quick outfits perfect for a night out where you’re definitely gonna spill something down yourself. You don’t spend a lot, but you also don’t expect it to last long. It’s a quick fix solution that suits everyone.
But what we often forget is that this very concept of fast fashion hinges on exploitation. Admittedly, fast fashion brands are not renowned for their sustainable and ethical ventures yet – even with such low expectations – we all should be shocked and disgusted for their inhumane and irresponsible COVID-19 practices.
At the first sight of trouble, fashion brands across the world started cancelling orders. They refused to pay for orders already made and work already finished, leaving the garment workers to starve. This sparked the #PayUp campaign, effectively shaming brands into paying their workers. Thus far, 19 brands have committed to paying in full, injecting roughly $1 billion into Bangladesh and $22 billion globally.
But this is still only half of the $40 billion worth of wages owed since the start of COVID-19. Brands such as Primark, Arcadia (encompassing Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Topshop and others), Urban Outfitters, and Fashion Nova still refuse to pay their dues.
Arcardia – owned by Philip Green – alone cancelled £9 million worth of orders from Bangladesh and Taveta Investments – Arcadia’s parent company and owned by Green’s wife – cancelled £100 million worth of orders. Green recently inspired outrage and disgust when he demanded emergency taxpayer help to pay the wages of the 14,500 furloughed employees during lockdown. This came at a time when he was spotted shopping for yet another multimillion-pound luxury yacht.
To me, this sums up the flagrant opportunism and blatant lack of humanity the fashion industry has shown time and time again. These attitudes and behaviours are rife throughout but have come to a head during the difficult times of lockdown. The worst offender being Boohoo, who owns the brands Nasty Gal, MissPap, Karen Miller, Coast Oasis, Warehouse and Pretty Little Thing.
In Boohoo’s Leicester garment factory, it was revealed that workers were being paid illegal wages of only £3.50 an hour, making it more of a sweatshop. A source revealed to the Sunday Times that workers were told, “You are not to tell anyone about working here”, “You are working illegally, so do not discuss or say anything with other people.”
Just to put this in perspective, prior to the pandemic Boohoo sales for the year in Feb rose by 44% to £1.2bn and pretax profit grew by 54% to £92.2m. From this bumper year, co-founders Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane took £1.3 million, all whilst refusing to pay their workers not just a living wage, but a legal one! Sickening.
This comes after the regional lockdown in Leicester after a localised outbreak of COVID. Many argue that this should come as no surprise when Boohoo’s factory ran as usual throughout the lockdown, with no social distancing measures or masks in sight. Workers even allege that they were often forced to come into work, even if suspected of having COVID-19.
The outrageous hypocrisy of this was that slogans such as #BoohooInTheHouse and #StayHomeWithPLT were pushed at the same time that they were endangering their workers. Late March, co-founder Mahmud Kamani posted a caption of “Stay at home, save lives!” when angry employees started commenting, calling out his bullshit. The post was swiftly deleted.
All whilst the nation was having to quarantine, Boohoo was capitalising on lockdown, making new COVID-related pieces. The slogans of “If in doubt, don’t go out”, to “Hanging with bae 2 meters away” are insulting when you realise that Boohoo was routinely putting their models, stylists, and photographers at risk to put out these news products.
But this shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Time and time again Boohoo has proven that it doesn’t care about its employees. In 2017, a Channel 4 documentary discovered that Boohoo was paying less than the minimum wage. No action was taken. In 2018, a Financial Times investigation revealed that Boohoo factory owners ignored employment laws “with impunity”. No action was taken.
Boohoo maintains that its investigations have never found evidence of modern slavery.
It was only after Boohoo’s share price dropped by 16% in the wake of the Sunday Times’ undercover expose that any action was promised. For them, profit is the only incentive. Now that they are losing money, Boohoo has promised “immediate action”, appointing a QC to investigate.
In ‘solidarity’, brands such as Next and ASOS dropped Boohoo from their sites. However, whilst I couldn’t find any Boohoo or Boohoo MAN, sub-companies such as Oasis, Karen Millen, Coast and Warehouse were available on ASOS. This proves yet again that fashion brands are only considered with appearing like they’re doing the right thing, to ensure steady cash flows.
It could be that lockdown made the fashion industry’s hypocrisy and exploitation just a little more obvious, or such abuses were more ‘wrong’ during an international crisis. But what is unmistakable is that exploitation and hypocrisy are fundamental to the fashion industry. Workers are abused and sacrificed for greater profit.
Coronavirus presented an opportunity for brands to slow down and re-evaluate their practices. Lockdown was a time where employees should have been protected, their safety was instead violated. Yet again, we are assured that fashion brands don’t really care about anything but their own profits.
Written by Guest Labour Writer, Abi Smuts
Point of Information
We need to change the culture supporting fast fashion – a Liberal Response
Firstly I’d like to say this is an excellent article that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Fast fashion is a huge problem. However, people too often refuse to fully acknowledge it. As Abi has pointed, out brands like boohoo are perfectly convenient. For a generation that is image-obsessed, but whose pockets are tight, fast fashion brands provide the solution.
However, the issues Abi has raised are by no means limited to the fashion industry. The inherent imperatives of the capitalist mode of production demand minimal costs to maximise profit. Companies like boohoo dominating market share do not reflect the quality of their goods, not even relative to price, but their ability to excel in cutting corners as much as possible without people realising or caring.
Cheap fashion brands are typically a sign of human rights and environmental violations. The exploitation of workers via unsafe working conditions and wages which don’t make ends meet is a sign of an economically healthy cost-efficient firm. A capitalist success story.
There is no clear solution to the problem of fast fashion. Like Abi has pointed out companies care about their image, not the authenticity of their ethics. After all, it is the image of the business and the price of the clothes which drive consumption.
However raising the conversation, researching supply chains of firms and opting for clothes that are made to last are all things we have the responsibility to do.
As individuals, we can’t change the context these firms are operating in but we can influence their behaviour through our demand. As consumers, we maintain and reproduce the fast fashion culture, but we need to start questioning the unthinkable costs behind the 70% off.
Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Abby Milnes
Legislation is the way forward – a Conservative Response
Abi aptly captures the corruption at the heart of the fast fashion industry. She discusses the inhumane treatment of workers that results in the quick fix that many consumers desire. What Abi does not discuss is a solution to the problem.
The first ‘solution’ to the fast fashion industry would presumably be slow fashion. Slow fashion is conscious of its carbon footprint, treatment of workers, and longevity of the garment. This seems like a perfect solution. It is not.
Let’s look at the cost of a basic white T-shirt. A T-shirt from BooHoo costs a mere £2, ideal for any shopper looking to limit how much money is coming out of their wallet. The same T-shirt from the ‘sustainable’ brand Rapanui costs an excessive £12! When 20% of the population are classified as Absolute Low Income, how can they afford anything but fast fashion? People simply cannot afford the luxury of sustainable clothing.
Abi claims that the pandemic is an opportunity for fast fashion brands to slow down and reevaluate their practices. Whilst I agree that a reevaluation is vital, the impact of COVID-19 on the retail sector has certainly not allowed for any time to slow down. There has been a 60% decline in spending on clothing and footwear in the UK. This offers an explanation as to why these companies have been so reluctant to slow down in the efforts to save themselves from going bankrupt.
Whilst as consumers, we vote with our money, the issue here is much more nuanced. It is unfair to put this responsibility onto the consumer. A step towards better working environments would be stricter requirements of Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. A 2019 review found that the Act had not ensured complete transparency of supply chains amongst commercial organisations. This is where the core issue lies. There must be harsher sanctions for companies that fail to meet the requirements of Section 54. It should be expected of companies to be clear about their supply chain and working environments.
This is not the responsibility of the consumer. Fast fashion perpetuates modern-day slavery, which ultimately lies in the hands of legislation.
Written by Guest Conservative Writer, Rebecca Selt
Hi, I’m Abi, a final year at Uni of Exeter studying International Relations and English. To me, it was only in A Levels that I realised how important politics was, when I was stuck in my male-only, extremely conservative Politics class having to constantly justify and defend my opinions to them.
I am a third year student studying English and Film Studies at the University of Exeter. After completing my degree, I will be converting to law to begin my journey of becoming a commercial lawyer. As an avid reader of the Financial Times, I have begun to understand how important the commercial market is in forming global politics.