What is Fast Fashion?
Fast Fashion is cheap on-trend clothing that has been sampled from celebrity culture and turned into high street clothing at high speeds. Essentially, it’s a way of making fashionable clothing that is quick and cheap for consumers. This may not seem like a bad thing; a good deal for the consumer is beneficial, correct? No. This global pandemic has shown why fast fashion is not a good thing.
What is the issue with it?
The Fast Fashion manufacturing process leaves a lot to be desired. Pieces are often thrown away after a few wears due to the quality of the merchandise, this is a consequence from the fast turnaround of fashion styles and the rushed manner in which clothing is made. 80 billion garments are produced each year, which works out at roughly 400% more clothes being produced in comparison to 20 years ago.
A modern western family discards on average 30 kilos of clothing each year and figures from 2014 show that in America, only 15% is either recycled or donated. Synthetic fibres such as polyester are non-biodegradable as they are plastic, as a result, they can take up to 200 years to decompose but are used in 72% of clothing.
There are health consequences for garment workers who are handling these potentially toxic chemicals in the clothes without having access to protective gear. In India, an investigation found that factories supplying clothes for popular retailers of fast fashion had leaked toxic chemicals into a river which was used by children to bathe in. It was ascertained that cases of cancer, tuberculosis, birth defects and reproductive issues were linked back to the leak.
Has this always happened?
The simple answer – yes. It’s something that I had never considered before until I came across the issue on social media. I bought clothes based on price and whether I liked them but where they were made and by whom is something I never considered.
Covid19 and Fast Fashion
Although this issue has always been around, it is fair to say that due to Covid19, this issue has become more prevalent. Furthermore, systematic issues have been exposed in the garment making process.
Many companies have not paid for the clothes that they have ordered. A survey of 35 fashion brands and retailers found that 40% had made no public commitment to paying for their order of clothes and different retailers have been reported to have cancelled billions of pounds of orders amounting to ‘wholesale abandonment’ of garment workers. Primark and Edinburgh Woollen Mill confirmed that they cancelled their orders while some brands and retailers have said they would honour existing financial arrangements with their suppliers and pay for the orders they have placed.
As a consequence, the position at the start of April was that more than 25% of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers had lost their jobs or been furloughed without pay. This is due to orders being for fashion brands cancelling shipments and refusing to pay for them. The establishment of the garment supply chain means the suppliers face the burden of the risk. Suppliers buy the material to make the garments; they hire the workers who make the clothes and an invoice cannot be created until the order is shipped. As a result, brands are cancelling orders and refusing the shipment. The clothes have been made and the orders cannot be shipped and no-one gets paid. A survey shows that 97% of the suppliers surveyed said that brands had not offered any financial assistance in covering the cost of furloughing workers or helping to pay severance costs.
Accountability and Social Media
Social media accounts have been raising awareness of what brands have or have not paid for their orders using the hashtag #PayUp. A petition has been created demanding brands to #PayUp in response to reports that brands had cancelled orders following the COVID19 outbreak. At the time of writing, it is believed that the #PayUp campaign has lead to an estimated $15 billion for suppliers globally.
Shops in the United Kingdom that have not yet paid up at the time of writing include Primark, Boohoo, Peacocks and shops owned by the Acardia Group (which consists of Dorothy Perkins, Topshop, Topman and multiple others).
Through social media, we saw companies posting about Black Lives Matter despite the fact that some brands have historically excluded people of colour and yet shared messages of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement (keeping in mind that 80% of the 74 million textile workers worldwide are women of colour). Critics highlighted that these messages do not mean anything if they are not backed by action.
To expand further, many companies use factories overseas to produce the clothes due to cheaper cost but brands are refusing to pay suppliers for their work. For example, Topshop still posted a black square on social media for #blackouttuesday even though they are one of many brands to not have paid suppliers. Customers want cheaper clothes and brands want larger profit margins and the evident exploitation through supply chains is acceptable or obscured by conscious marketing change.
Exploitation does not exclusively happen in developing countries. Boohoo recently came under fire for reportedly exploiting vulnerable workers in Leicester. The garment industry is a major industry in Leicester, illustrated by over 1,000 factories. Boohoo Group Limited which includes Pretty Little Thing, Oasis and Warehouse, accounts for 75-85% of production from Leicester with 60-70% of their clothing coming from there. Prior to COVID19, there were reports of bad practice, underpayment and allegation of non-payment of holiday pay. Industry sources have said that it is impossible to produce the garments for the product price and pay workers the national minimum wage.
Most garment workers are from BAME backgrounds and around 33.6% of them were born outside of the UK. These workers are vulnerable to abuse as a result of their language skills, immigration status and other factors. Their vulnerabilities mean that workers are willing to accept poor conditions in exchange for a job and as a result are unwilling to speak out due to fear of investigation or deportation.
A study in 2015 found that most workers were paid significantly below the National Minimum Wage (£6.50), the hours worked were ‘grossly’ under-recorded and the local average wage was close to £3. Conditions were repeatedly brought to the attention of the Government and Authorities. Earlier this year, Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, raised serious concerns over the conditions in garment factories and arranged a meeting with the business secretary Kelly Tolhurst. Now more than ever, the Government must recognise that the situation in the UK, and particularly Leicester, is the inevitable outcome of the current fast fashion business model and the lack of regulation of pricing and purchasing practices.
Boohoo and Covid19
As already made evident, COVID19 has a disproportionate impact on those of a BAME background, as a result current practices are even more dangerous due to the increased exposure in small factories. Factories continued to operate through lockdown (for example Boohoo chased orders and told them they were key workers) yet, reportedly, there has been no PPE’s, social distancing and hand sanitisers, showing disregard for COVID19 containment measures. Moreover, there have been accusations of furlough fraud, theft of wages and forcing people to work despite testing positive of COVID19.
Despite this, Boohoo has stated that they are expecting a growth of 25% for 2020/21. They have a current market value of £4.6 billion . John Lyttle is due to receive a £104 million pay-out. Salary increases of 18-30% have been proposed for senior executives. Boohoo’s sister company PrettyLittleThing has also been criticised for not following containment measures. By the beginning of April, one of the warehouses in Sheffield was the subject of 32 complaints to the local MP, Clive Betts, due to the lack of social distancing.
Hope for the Future
People are starting to realise the implications of fast fashion since Covid19. As well as donating your items to charity shops, there are alternative ideas. Here are some good accounts to follow on social media or good ideas to get behind.
Salvaged Project was created in 2016 and run by Lauren. She sells clothes through Instagram and Depop. She established it after watching a documentary about the impact climate change had on endangered animals, especially the impact of the fashion industry. Salvaged Project became a way of turning the clothes causing damage into a way to fundraise. She uses her platform to raise awareness around the environmental and human impact of fast fashion.She currently works in the charities sector and has done for the past 7 years.
How Salvaged Project works
People donate clothes, which she sells and donates the money to charity. Lauren decided to donate to charities supporting refugees after listening to documentaries on Radio 4; one about women in Bosnia still suffering effects of war and another about the Rohingya people. She chooses small independent charities that work with refugees across the globe and will benefit massively from the donations. At the time of writing, the latest charity she was raising money for is Refugee Aid Network who are providing emergency medical support in Yemen. She posts everytime she donates any money, so those involved know where the money has gone. It is great that we are able to know where the money goes and the donations make a big difference to people who need it.
Comedians such as Sara Pascoe and Aisling Bea have donated clothing. If you hadn’t realised, I think she is absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend following her on instagram.
Lost Stock in an initiative by a company called Mallzee. They purchase the clothes from factories overseas that would have otherwise gone to landfill and selling them on to us. It is £35 a box for at least 3 items of clothing, providing the customer with 50% discount, whilst supporting workers and preventing the clothing going to landfill.
37% of the money spent on Lost Stock box goes to the Sajida Foundation who work across Bangladesh helping those who need it most. Each Lost Stock box sold will support a worker and their family for a week. Food and hygiene packages and PPE have been distributed as well as installation of portable hand-washing devices throughout the country. As amazing as this is, it does allow companies that haven’t paid for the clothes to escape the responsibility of having to pay.
Sites to sell your clothes on
There are numerous sites which enable you to sell your clothes second-hand. These sites include eBay and Depop along with plenty of others. This allows someone else to appreciate your clothes and potentially give them a new lease of life.
Recycle your clothes
H&M have a Garment Collection programme which is an initiative that works to prevent unwanted clothes and textiles ending up in landfill. All clothes collected are either reused, re-worn or recycled. In return, you receive a £5 voucher to use towards your next purchase of £25 in-store or online.
We have seen measures that avoid sending clothes to landfill, but what can be done to ensure the much-needed systematic change happens? Transparency needs to increase so we, as customers, can make the informed choice of where we buy our clothes from.
Let me be clear, I am not trying to shame anyone who buys from Primark or Boohoo or any other shop that sells fast fashion. My stance is that if we have the financial resources to spend more on environmentally-friendly or sustainable clothing that is made ethically, then it is something we should consider. I believe that as customers, we have a responsibility to not contribute to the exploitation of garment workers.
The Labour behind the Label report has listed measures on how to change the garment-making system including the introduction of mandatory regulation of COVID-19 safeguards. There needs to be a way of ensuring corporate accountability for modern supply chains as highlighted by the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
For there to be a meaningful change, there needs to be systematic change. There can be simple things that brands can do. Since I started writing this, there have been more fast fashion collaborations announced including Jacqueline Jossa’s collaboration with In The Style. One thing we definitely do not need is more collaboration between ‘celebrities’ and companies that use fast fashion. Fast Fashion and the economical injustices of it is complicated and this article has covered a small portion, however, it can be universally agreed that there should be no excuses not to pay garment workers, or worker generally, their living wage right. Especially if the brand owner is a billionaire.