Fast and Cheap Fashion – Who pays the Price?

Is Fast Fashion worth the Risk?

Fast fashion has been at the heart of a number of controversies over the past couple of years, but a new report claims that those at the forefront of unsustainable fashion have broken lockdown rules and put lives at risk.

Simon Birch from Ethical Consumer explains more in this special guest article.

The Human Cost of Fast Fashion

Further evidence of the continuing human cost of fast fashion has been dominating the headlines recently.

It seems that every month a new report is released damning the fast fashion business model on everything from workers’ rights and environmental impacts, to tax avoidance Clothing companies and tax havens

And just when it couldn’t seem to get any worse for the budget fashion retailers, news broke recently that suppliers in the UK had been breaking lockdown rules.

A report from the campaign group Labour Behind the Label contains serious allegations of lockdown breaches, exploitation and modern slavery in the supply chain of fast-fashion giant Boohoo, in Leicester.

According to the group, textile workers supplying Boohoo were required to continue working without additional protection during Leicester’s localised lockdown that was brought in after cases of Covid-19 in the city began rising again.

Experts and local community organisers believe that Leicester’s clothing sector looks likely to have played a key role in the resurgence of Covid-19 in the city.

The campaign group spoke with textile workers in Leicester and heard of cases of employers at factories forcing workers to come in throughout the lockdown, despite high rates of infections within the factories. Some workers were even told to keep results secret if they tested positive for the virus, according to the group.

Whilst many clothing brands’ profits have taken a hit during the Covid-19 crisis, Dominique Muller the author of the report, said that a surge in new orders for clothing during lockdown were behind the factories staying open.

Speaking to The Guardian, Muller said:

“Allegations of abuse at many Leicester companies have been reported for years now. So far, local and central government have failed to take any meaningful action. Instead they have seemed to focus on immigration raids which have made vulnerable workers more fearful of speaking out.”

shirts on clothes rail various colours

Impact of Covid-19 on fast fashion

The report said that textile workers’ evidence suggested that the Covid-19 crisis had exacerbated the pre-existing poor working conditions in Boohoo’s supply chain in Leicester.

Meg Lewis, Campaigns Manager for Labour Behind the Label, said:

“We have repeatedly called on Boohoo to improve labour rights in their supply chain, yet they have failed to take meaningful action. The surge in Boohoo’s profits during the COVID-19 crisis is directly linked to their disregard of responsible sourcing.”

Boohoo received further bad publicity just days after the publication of the Labour Behind the Label report.

An undercover investigation by The Sunday Times revealed allegations that textile workers producing clothes for Boohoo in Leicester were being paid just £3.50 an hour, well below the national minimum wage of £8.72 an hour for people over 25.

The consequence of the tide of negative publicity swirling around Boohoo resulted in the brand  being dumped by five leading fashion retailers including Amazon, Asos and Next. A spokesperson for Next said:

“In response to the report from Labour Behind The Label, Next concluded that there is a case for Boohoo Group to answer. As a result, Next has removed the Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing branded items it was selling previously, from all Next websites.”

Boohoo replied, saying that they were determined ‘to drive up standards where this is required’ and ‘ensure that everyone working to produce clothing in our supply chain is properly remunerated, fairly treated and safe at work’.

The scandal surrounding Leicester’s garment sector is just the latest incident for the fast fashion industry that is notorious for its sweatshop factories and the exploitation of workers, both here in the UK and overseas.

Fast fashion explained

But what exactly is fast fashion?

“Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in a number of ways,” explains Alex Crumbie, a researcher for Ethical Consumer’s latest product guide to clothing Fashion and Clothing

“The rate of production of clothing is fast; a customer’s decision to buy is fast and garments are worn fast, usually only a few times before being thrown away. It is a business model that is entirely unsustainable.”

Britons now buy more new clothes than any other country in Europe and we throw out an astonishing one million tonnes of clothing every year, of which 20% goes straight to the landfill.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, research suggests that almost 50 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds say that they now felt pressure to wear a new outfit every time they go out.

Fighting fast fashion

 So how can we slow down our flawed fascination with fast fashion?

The good news is that there’s now a sustained fight-back against the fast fashion industry which is now widely acknowledged as having a massively negative impact on both people and the environment.

One of the best places to start to find out how you can join in the campaign against fast fashion is by checking out Ethical Consumer’s current product guide to Fashion and Clothing.

The guide outlines the increasing number of viable and ethical alternative choices and campaign actions that people can take. But perhaps the single most important thing that you can do as a consumer is to make sure that the clothes you buy are made ethically and sustainably.

The ethical clothing industry is now booming and the guide contains a handy table that ranks some of the most ethical clothing companies in the UK One of the these is Know The Origin, an online platform for ethical clothing that came top of Ethical Consumer’s table.

“Every brand that we sell has incredible ethical impacts on people and the planet,” says Molly James from Know The Origin

“We’re building Know The Origin to be a home for the richest choice of certified brands and to raise a new standard of sustainability, making ethical the norm for everyone.”

Is a penny on a garment enough to tackle environmental issues? in February 2019 MPs called for a penny on every garment to fund a recycling scheme. Nothing happened.

About the author Simon Birch

Simon Birch is a columnist for Ethical Consumer magazine and writes on environmental and ethical issues for the UK media @SimonBirchSays

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