How Your Favourite Fast Fashion Brands are Exploiting the Pandemic, their Workers and You By Yasmin Norvill

We are living in a time where the average day of a typical Brit vastly contrasts to another. While our incredible relatives, friends and neighbours bravely face the front line as they carry out their duties as key workers, for those of us on the outskirts, life commands a much slower pace: a sun bathe in the garden here, a spring clean there. For us lucky ones, life has begun to feel a little like an episode of Love Island (of course, without the incredibly hot singles and far less touching). Could there ever be a better time to organise your wardrobe and take the opportunity to reinvent yourself than amidst a national lockdown? As we scroll through Tik Tok to witness influencer after influencer display their impressive haul of new clothes, or see our favourite fashion retailers boast of a new sale almost daily, why wouldn’t you want to splash your furloughed pay check on some fresh summer staples? Even if they will only be appreciated by your siblings or maybe at a push, the man at the local Tesco.

The reality is, as the urgency of the climate crisis climaxes, now more than ever our society is becoming increasingly aware of how our small consumerist actions have a larger, more detrimental effect on the environment. Fortunately, over the past few years, dressing more sustainably has gained status and with thanks to trendy vintage stores and environmentally-conscious fashion bloggers, many of us have made an active effort to reduce the rate at which we consume fast fashion (For me, this means justifying the purchase of a £45 vintage Champion jumper, at least I’m saving it from landfill, right?).

The term ‘fast fashion’ simply relates to brands that quickly and cheaply adopt trends from the catwalk and recreate these items on a mass scale. Though at first glance an innocent description, typically, fast fashion companies mask their darker impacts. Namely, poorly treated workers and landfill waste that is produced on a gigantic scale.

Despite the slow move away from harmful shopping habits, as charity shops have been forced to close their doors amidst a global pandemic, it has given way to an unavoidable temptation to sneakily scroll through our favourite fast fashion websites. Whether it be Zara’s £3.99 crop tops or Topshop’s line of summer dresses, resisting the urge to purchase is hard but due to the imminence of the crisis, imperative.

Over two months ago, Boris Johnson ordered all clothing retailers to shut up shop and move online in order to uphold the social distancing measures that have been put in place by the government. As a result, many companies have suffered a huge reduction in sales and have ruthlessly cancelled their outstanding orders with factories in countries such as Bangladesh. Consequently, ITV news reported in April that the Bangladeshi government have admitted that their garment industry battles a “major crisis.” British retailers are cancelling their orders and risking the livelihoods of the four million Bangladeshi workers employed by the industry. This reckless and selfish act leaves workers unpaid and frightened at a time where financial security is more important than ever before.

To follow and receive updates on this injustice, I highly recommend following the Instagram account @remakeourworld which has been created by Remake, a non-profit organisation dedicated to battling the harmful effects of fast fashion. On their website, it is explained that Remake are “using our purchasing, our voices and our creativity to make the invisible women who power the fashion industry visible.” They outline that they are “breaking up with fast fashion and have taken the pledge to buy better.” This is a pledge that is perfectly accessible to all of us who want to start shopping more ethically. On Instagram, they have created the hashtag #PayUp to pressure the likes of Urban Outfitters, ASOS, Fashion Nova and others to do the right thing and pay their outstanding bill. They have created a petition titled "Gap, Primark, C&A #PayUp for orders, save lives" which currently stands at 55,000 signatures strong. The Instagram account offers almost daily updates detailing which companies have agreed to give their share of the outstanding payment which is crippling the Bangladeshi economy.

The Stag editorial team showing their support for #PayUp

For some companies, their poor treatment of workers and laxed health and safety approach is not only found abroad but here in the UK too. Retail giant ASOS have been exposed for their allegedly disastrous application of social distancing within the Barnsley distribution centre, which has caused great distress for thousands of their British employees whom are struggling to keep to the recommended two metres apart. Though ASOS have denied these claims, the GMB union have strongly critiqued the gigantic online retailer for their insufficient attempt to distance, lack of facial protection and limited access to hand sanitiser. An ambulance has been spotted outside the centre multiple times; forcing customers to question further the safety of those working at Barnsley.

Poor treatment of workers is a scandal fast fashion companies have been exploiting long before the pandemic reared its ugly head. Enter Boohoo; Boohoo PLC is a renowned fashion retailer which also owns the likes of PrettyLittleThing, NastyGal and MissPap; the Holy Trinity for any student searching for a cheap dress for their weekly night out. If you have ever searched through the digital piles of cheap clothes on their respective sites and questioned if the offers were too good to be true then I’m afraid to tell you that they are. Two years ago, Sarah O’Connor investigated Boohoo for the Financial Times and exposed the chilling truth that in their Leicester factory, the workers were not being paid minimum wage. While the co-founder Mahmud Kamani held a net worth of over £1 billion, his workers were left dangerously underpaid.

If the greediness of these companies wasn’t apparent before then the lurking pandemic has shone a bright light onto the situation. Many fast fashion companies have taken the pandemic and exploited it for all it’s worth. From swarming our timelines with adverts promoting leisure and active wear to shamelessly selling overpriced face masks that can be made at home for free; their relentless and unethical approach to the pandemic have shown for good that they do not care for their customers or their employees. Ironically and outrageously, despite selling masks, many companies are not supplying them to their own workers, as reported by InStyle - just another example of their prioritisation of reputation above the safety of employees. The debate surrounding the unethicalness of fast fashion is one that will span far beyond the pandemic and one many will hold conflicting opinions on too due to society’s normalisation of excessive consumption. In today’s world, it is common for the majority of people to indulge in fleeting fashion trends which further triggers buyers to purchase larger quantities for smaller prices, rather than taking the more sustainable route of investing in life long pieces that are often unable to showcase the latest catwalk craze.

Brands are attempting to redeem themselves for the damage they’ve caused but the sincerity of these actions must be evaluated. Over the past five years there has been an increase in companies acknowledging the need for a greater awareness of sustainable fashion but whether this is a meaningful realisation or a façade for appropriating the popularity of sustainability, is a question consumers must ask themselves before voting with their money. While ASOS employ an entire team to handle sustainability needs, H&M and Topshop release specifically sustainable lines of clothing and Fat Face include a sustainability statement on their website, we must ask are these efforts good enough?

We need radical action, we need global change; a demand which is incredibly intimidating for someone at the start of their sustainable journey. We live in a consumer-centric world, a society that celebrates mass consumption, one that even uses this to be an indicator of success.

So where can we start? Like all radical change, the foundations of sustainable fashion lie in grass root projects. Without the demand, companies are forced to change their supply. It may seem unrealistic to cut your monthly Zara* (*read as your favourite brand) order out cold turkey but you can and should lobby these companies to demonstrate that the desire for sustainable fashion is there. Use the hashtag #PayUp and stand in solidarity with workers that need to be heard. If you still feel the urge to scratch that spending itch then check out https://loststock.com/ Lost Stock is a venture powered by Mallzee who have ingeniously created a scheme in which you fill out a questionnaire about your own style, pay £35 and receive a whole box of clothes that have been already produced by the Bangladeshi workers who are now left without pay. The box offers a 50% discount off the RRP and aids the workers who have been exploited without supporting the companies that wronged them.

Now more than ever we must stay educated and inform ourselves of how our own actions have an effect further afield. Instead of waving to your DPD delivery man for the fourth time this week; have a go at embroidery, jump on the tie dye or bleaching trend or if all else fails, give your animal crossing character a makeover. Attempt to fill the desire to consume with an alternative that does not harm another worker who is invisible to you. The future of fashion is in our hands.


Created with an image by Amanda Vick