A somewhat alien concept to many consumers when ease and efficiency of shopping only require us to merely pick up an item, perhaps try it on for size and upon satisfaction, head to the tills to purchase. Similarly, the same process applies for online shopping (although for convenience, trying for size is eliminated). Yet reflecting on personal buying habits during lockdown has highlighted to me the apparent opacity of the supply chain of many popular fashion brands. This has led to a (granted unapparent) ignorance of who makes our clothes, where materials are sourced and how much highly-skilled workers and labourers are paid.
Recent investigations into boohoo PLC found British-based factory workers were being paid less than half the legal minimum wage to produce garments for boohoo and all its subsidiaries. Boohoo’s pre-tax profits grew 54% to £92.2m and both co-founders were paid more than £1.3m each for the last financial year. Yet, the exploitation of labourers seem to run against the current with this seemingly wealthy and successful image portrayed by the people at the top of the hierarchy of this business. Paying labourers between £3 and £3.50 an hour for highly skilled work is unacceptable. While it is poignant to note this occurring in Britain, the immediate second thought is to only imagine the unethical treatment and working conditions for employees in third-world countries where unions and regulatory bodies are practically non-existent.
The realisation that the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world also highlights that this is a growing problem and one that needs to be addressed immediately. In addition to this, the usual cost-cutting low-price business model that we are accustomed to perhaps calls for a much-needed and sought after insight into the supply chain. Crucially, factories note that the relentless push for cheap, budget-friendly prices has meant that they have no option but to underpay workers despite the skill, speed and pressure that they face in their daily work.
After this is the shocking finding by Hult Research in partnership with the Ethical Trading Initiative: ‘77% of UK retailers believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery in their supply chain’ (Lake, 2016). Such a large percentage in this research only reinforces the need for transparency, not only to protect those who have been affected directly but also to educate consumers who perhaps do not prioritise this as part of their retail attitude and overall buying behaviour. Supporting this message, Stacey Dooley noted in a recent Selfridges talk that, ‘as consumers, we are without question the most powerful players in the fashion game’ (Dooley, 2018). This reiterates that although fast fashion can damage and counteract any attempt to harbour sustainability we as consumers have the power to reverse this and call for clearer supply chains from corporations who maintain large shares of the market.
However, while the current situation seems to render a large group of companies at fault for failing to make sourcing of materials and operations processes more transparent, exceptions to this norm are beginning to emerge. Newly founded fashion brand ‘nu-in’ seeks to design, market and sell a fashion line which is ‘sustainably driven’ and ethical by nature. Likewise, young entrepreneur Grace Beverley strives to achieve a similar mission with her upcoming fashion line ‘Tala’, arguing that the only way to change the industry is to disrupt the market by providing a competitive product, sustainably produced.
Whilst I am certainly and indefinitely an advocate for promoting commercial and economic activity, I am conscious of the part that quality can play in affecting our buying decisions. Hopefully, through sufficient education, we can attempt to eliminate the schism between fast fashion and the slow and sustainable alternative that is beginning to find a name for itself. As a result, by providing substitutes that directly compete with fast fashion alternatives, we can aim to adapt the very nature of fast-paced consumerism. We must seek to differentiate between those companies whose honest mission is to contribute to conservation versus those that only use this front for greenwashing and publicity purposes.
After all, it is always worth remembering fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying.
By Saskia Ackermann-Clark
Illustration: by Bethan Chinn