There needs to be a reckoning in the fashion industry

  • The fashion industry has long been under fire for human rights abuses.
  • But the COVID-19 crisis is shining a new light on those abuses.
  • Without a system that allows consumers to hold companies accountable, the abuses will persist.
  • Nicky is a writer and speaker who primarily covers arts and culture.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The fashion industry has long been a focus of human rights campaigners. Child labor, poverty wages, and a lack of transparency means that garment workers — especially in the global South — are consistently exploited.

The same goes with environmental concerns: the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity's carbon emissions, 35% of all microplastics in the ocean, and 85% of all textiles produced annually end up in landfill. With stats like those, it's clear that the fashion industry's reckoning has been a long time coming.

COVID-19 is that reckoning.

Fashionably late

In April, The Guardian reported that major high street fashion brands, including Primark and Matalan, had cancelled or suspended orders for £2.4 billion worth of garments from factories in Bangladesh. Over 97% of suppliers surveyed by the WRC and Penn State University said that brands had offered "no financial assistance" to cover furlough or severance costs; the executive director of the WRC described the situation as a "wholesale abandoning of workers and suppliers" by brands.

Factory owners, who operate on low profit margins and lack access to cash reserves or credit, are unable to pay their workers — who themselves aren't paid enough to accumulate the savings they would need to weather this pandemic. While brands scramble to minimize losses, factory owners and workers in Bangladesh are facing destitution.

Closer to home, the brands ASOS and Boohoo both made headlines for the unsanitary working conditions in their UK factories, leading directly to COVID-19 outbreaks in both locations. Boohoo in particular has been criticised for allegedly paying workers as little as £3.50 per hour in a Leicester factory — less than half the UK legal minimum wage of £8.72 per hour. Although Boohoo has said the factory was run by a subcontractor and the bran dis investigating its supply chain, up until this point sales were booming and bosses were in line to make £150 million in bonuses.

ASOS, meanwhile, fired 70 workers at the beginning of the outbreak when they switched delivery suppliers (from Menzies to DPD). The administrators and drivers were originally told that their contracts would be transferred, only for DPD to U-turn on its commitment and announce that they would be dismissed on May 1.

A new light on abuse

Whether in the UK or farther afield, the effects of COVID-19 on the fashion industry are unmistakable. As the crisis has developed, it has thrown into sharp relief many of the systemic issues in the industry — obscure supply chains, worker exploitation, and extreme waste, to name a few — but we're yet to find sustainable solutions to these problems.

Initiatives like Mallzee's Lost Stock have sprung up to plug the gap left by brands abandoning their suppliers. Consumers can purchase a bag of clothes from Lost Stock, tailored to their size and preferences, at £35 — a 50% discount from the estimated £70 retail price. Lost Stock's website claims that each bag supports a Bangladeshi worker and their family for one week.

Although an innovative solution to the dual problem of supporting workers and reducing waste, initiatives like this speak to our neoliberal, late-capitalist era by putting the onus on the consumer to fix the deep-seated problems in the fashion industry. While brands continue to profit from the exploitation of their workers, the burden of "doing the right thing" and bailing out these workers falls on individuals — many of whom are themselves suffering from COVID-related redundancies and reduced hours.

In asking individuals to contribute to ending systemic issues, initiatives like this also require the public to make difficult personal choices about what matters to them, as they are asked to split what disposable income they have between different causes — BLM, local food banks, queer fundraisers, etc. The focus is on individual consumers to make ethical choices for the greater good, rather than holding brands to account.

Mallzee's program appeals to consumers' self-interest: it's undeniably positive that the garments won't go to waste, but the 50% discount incentive speaks to a world in which we are consumers first and foremost; where everything is transactional, and doing a good deed comes with a material reward. It's also worth noting that focusing on poverty and exploitation in other countries leads to western consumers buying into the lie that it "doesn't happen here", and doing a disservice to the vulnerable, precarious, and exploited workers in our home countries.

Accountability

In a time when we should be reflecting on our relationship to fast fashion and our place in a deeply consumer-oriented society, the response to COVID-19 seems to be a focus on increased consumption. Rather than addressing the #BoycottAsos campaign which sprang up in response to ASOS' treatment of its workers, ASOS doubled down: in the week leading up to pubs reopening in England, ASOS offered discounts to UK shoppers to get ready for "Super Saturday." In doing so they encouraged the public to see themselves as consumers, capitalizing on the reopening of pubs and bars as an opportunity to push sales — even while public health advice remained clear on staying at home and avoiding unnecessary travel.

In all of these instances, making ethical choices becomes individual consumers' responsibility, when what we need is corporate and governmental accountability. The COVID-19 crisis has precisely illuminated everything wrong with fast fashion: cramped unsanitary working conditions, precarious and exploitative employment, an opaque supply chain which enables brands to abandon their laborers.

It's evident that real systemic change is needed, and that calling on consumers to behave "ethically" will not be enough. Without organised collective action and a system which enables us to hold brands to account, these issues will continue, even right under our noses.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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