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Fast fashion and promotion of modern slavery: Is this the end of it?

Fast fashion and promotion of modern slavery: Is this the end of it?

The reckoning

Text: Grace Cook


What's the cost of cheap clothing? We're well versed in its impact on the planet. We know that the throwaway mentality of fast fashion brands like Boohoo is wrong. We know too that realistically, a Boohoo dress that costs the same as a cup of coffee can not have been manufactured in ethical conditions. But the latter is something that many have deliberately overlooked — chosen not to acknowledge. Until now.

When, earlier this month, Boohoo came under fire for revelations that its Leicester warehouse was in full operation during the COVID-19 lockdown — with workers manning machines without any sort of social distancing or PPE — people were outraged. Boohoo was collectively cancelled; it's share price dropped by a third, wiping £1 billion off the company's value, while retailers including Zalando, Next and ASOS dropped its wares. It prompted Boohoo to release a disingenuous statement saying it would investigate; such was the lack of integrity that one of its key shareholders, Aberdeen Standard Investments, offloaded £80million of its shares after Boohoo failed to respond appropriately to concerns.

But the Manchester-based retailer's unethical trading practices and modern-day slavery has been common knowlege for years; a 2017 FT investigation revealed workers' in its Leicester factory — a British sweatshop —were paid £3.50 an hour. (The UK's national minimum wage is £8.72 an hour; Boohoo, in contrast, posted record revenues of £857 million in 2019, up 48 percent on the previous year.) Until this month worth over $5 billion, Boohoo makes its gargantuan profits by not paying its garment factories — and therefore its workers — properly for the labour on its clothing. Not only is it an open secret in Leicester, but the UK Government and the Fashion and Textiles Association know about it. So why cancel Boohoo now?

The Coronavirus lockdown has forced people the worldover to sit at home and contemplate our individual impact — both on the planet and on other people. We stayed home to flatten the curve, wore masks in shops to protect the most vulnerable and we clapped for carers to collectively acknowledge their sacrifice. With only an hour's outside relief permitted per day and shopping only for essential items, we reassessed the nature of 'must-have' —sales of clothing fell 50 percent in April.

Then the Black Lives Matter movement took hold following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and again, we were forced to reckon with how unjust society is the worldover, where racism not only exists but is embedded at the heart of our institutions, both culturally and socially. Collectively, the world woke up to white privilege — an issue compounded by the fact that BAME communities were more at risk from the Coronavirus. "The last few months have brought to the surface extremely unethical behaviours of brands, from unpaid orders from suppliers in China or Bangladesh because of Covid-19 to [inappropriate action] over Black Lives Matter," says Orsola de Castro, founder of the non-profit Fashion Revolution.

That low-paid garment workers in these 'dark factories' are likely to be from BAME communities, with 49 percent of Leicester's population being of Indian, Black or Asian heritage, only augments the issue; workers were illegally forced into the factory to sew during lockdown, without any form of PPE or social distancing. Reports of furlough fraud abounded. During a global pandemic and the biggest civil rights movement since 1963, Boohoo putting profits ahead of people became too big a burden to bear. Turning a blind eye was no longer a viable option for shoppers or shareholders.

This heightened sense of social and racial injustice has led many shoppers to boycott Boohoo. "Low-paid workers are the sacrificial lamb," says Harriet Notton, who has vowed never to shop with the company (or its subsidiaries Nasty Gal, Pretty Little Thing, Oasis, Coast and Warehouse) again. "The fact that the staff were expected to turn up to work without face masks in an area like Leicester which has had a second spike [is astounding]." The city is still in a state of extended lockdown after cases soared in June, attributed to the continued trade of garment factories. "When it's on your doorstep somewhere like Leicester, instead of far-away countries like Bangalore, this exploitation is much harder to ignore," says Frances Leach, another former shopper.

And it's Black Lives Matter that will force this ongoing fast fashion reckoning, according to de Castro; the pandemic will eventually pass. "BLM is the only thing that will remain out of this whole COVID-19 experience —everything else will crawl back towards our usual lives," she says. "BLM has already been a significant, cultural changer that has been a catalyst for a lot of further understanding. It's asking people to learn." This is the first time in modern history that cross-generations are reading to further contemplate the racial and socio-economic make-up of their own societies. And garment workers are part of that conversation.

The plight of underserved communities has never been more apparent. Continuing to boycott brands like Boohoo that behave badly will force the conversation — and the fast fashion supply chain overhaul — forwards. De Castro suggests shopping instead at independent brands and black-owned retailers — or renting and buying second-hand clothing on resale sites, demand for which is soaring because of its more sustainable credentials. Investors look at sales figures; the customer coin has profound power. The ability to spearhead change is quite literally in our pockets. Spend wisely.

This story was first published on Buro. London.

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