Fashion Worth Dying For?

As COVID-19 cases rise in Leicester, modern slavery investigations start at Boohoo’s factories there…Is fast fashion really worth dying for?

When you hear stories of garment workers forced to work in crowded conditions, in run-down buildings, whilst sick and who are paid less than minimum wage, you would likely think of Bangladesh or India or another developing country. You wouldn’t immediately think of England.

But those are the conditions in some garment factories in Leicester, a city of around 350,000 people in the Midlands with a long history of textile production. Leicester is now in a second lockdown with cases of coronavirus rising.

Labour Behind the Label, Instagram
Labour Behind the Label, Instagram

In a recent report from Labour Behind the Label, the group found that several factories stayed open despite the government-mandated shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workers who had tested positive with the virus and displayed symptoms were required to work to fulfil online orders. If they refused, they were told they would be fired.

‘Most factories in Leicester are small workshops, often housed in dilapidated buildings with little investment in building safety and modern ventilation. It is inconceivable that such factories would be able to operate at full capacity whilst ensuring social distancing and adequate COVID-19 protection measures.’

Labour Behind the Label

One of the fast fashion brands that is coming under increasing heat is Boohoo, which accounts for 75-80% of production in Leicester. A Sunday Times journalist went undercover at one of Leicester’s factories last week that produces clothes sold under the Nasty Gal label, owned by Boohoo, and worked for two days. The Independent reports that the journalist was ‘told to expect pay of just £3.50 an hour – well below the UK minimum wage of £8.72 for workers aged 25 and over’. The company is now under investigation for modern slavery charges.

‘These motherf*****s know how to exploit people like us,’ a foreman is reported to have told the journalist. ‘They make profits like hell and pay us in peanuts.’

And the profits are high. With a market value of £4.6 billion, Boohoo – along with its other brands Oasis, Warehouse and PrettyLittleThing – is ‘expecting a growth of 25% overall for the year 20/21 – after posting an increase of around 44% growth in the first quarter of the year’, the Labour Behind the Label report notes.

Online sales spiked during the pandemic lockdown leading to a 22% increase in their share price. The Sunday Times article showed several pieces of clothes – a dress, jeans, a t-shirt – with price points of £7 or £8. Prices that low cannot be a fair reflection of the true cost of those items as journalist Lucy Siegle summarised in a passionate Twitter thread.

It’s not just the sweat shop workers, she wrote, it’s also the environmental impact that fast fashion has. ‘A disproportionate amount of your taxes must go to cleaning up plastic fibre waste from disposable Boohoo garments…’

The flawed business model is also singled out by Labour Behind the Label’s report:

‘The Fast Fashion model used by Boohoo and many other brands – of short and often small batch orders with a fast turnaround – encourages unauthorised subcontracting in order to meet low prices, fast production times and volumes needed, and also encourages the exploitation of workers and noncompliance in terms of working conditions and standards. Unauthorised subcontracting often means production from unaudited and unknown suppliers with poor working conditions, low wages, and the potential of other irregularities (such as wage fraud or non/underpayment of other benefits, especially for more vulnerable workers such as immigrants and night shift workers).’

Labour Behind the Label

The allure of fast fashion is that we can refresh our wardrobes constantly without breaking the bank. There is the initial thrill of the purchase and maybe even a handful of likes when we post our new look on Instagram.

But in the midst of a global pandemic and calls for social justice sweeping the world, those temporary benefits come up short. It’s time for all of us to reflect on the systems that we prop up with our spending choices. It’s time to acknowledge the human and environmental costs and stop buying fast fashion.

We can shop secondhand, do a clothes swap with our friends, rent our next outfit or simply shop our wardrobe and give the clothes we already have a new lease on life.

And we need to support the organisations that are calling on governments and big brands to make system changes to how they create clothes – organisations like Labour Behind the Label and the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Let’s make this the moment we ditch fast fashion for good.

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