Sustainable Fast Fashion: A Contradiction in Terms
Scoop Leeds co-founder, Antonia Brown, discusses all things fast fashion. Although hailed the ‘democratisation’ of fashion, the fast fashion industry increasingly illustrates why it bears no place in a civil society. The Boohoo scandal is just one example in a 20 year history of an industry that consistently instrumentalises the exploitation of both people and the planet.
Graphic: Fast fashion often spurs images to mind far distant from its supply chain reality.
When you hear the term ‘fast fashion’, what comes to mind? Is it images of small framed children sewing button after button on shirts? Is it piles of fabric being processed by women in a sweatshop thousands of miles away in sweltering temperatures? Perhaps you see the rubble of the aftermath of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse? Or maybe it’s the Buriganga river in Dhaka, dyed black by the chemical leakage from the tanneries?
Whatever comes to mind, it probably wasn’t the realities of the modern day slaves working within textile factories in Leicester. British consumers often homogenise worker exploitation in fast fashion as a product of less developed countries with low worker protection and poor environmental standards. Though fast fashion is deeply problematic in marking a continuation of the historical exploitation of poor countries by rich multi-national corporations whose predatory extraction of natural resources and exploitative corporation labour practices do much to trap workers in these countries in cycles of poverty, the Boohoo exposé story in Leicester blew away all assumptions that this was a phenomenon limited only to workers in distant lands.
Leicester, in which Boohoo accounts for over 80% of its garment production, is just one UK city plagued by modern day slavery. Allegations of pay as low as £3.50 an hour were made against producer factories, with one employee on £5 an hour having worked at the same factory for over 5 years. In posing as a potential employee The Undercover Reporter revealed there to be little to no protective COVID-19 measures in place. Visiting one of the estimated 250 sweatshops in Leicester, only one employee was seen to be wearing a face mask.
Amid all the criticism, Boohoo emerged relatively unscathed. Richard Hunter of Interactive Investor notes that despite a week-long blip in sales and dip in their Instagram following, Boohoo actually enjoyed a 40% increase in revenue during the pandemic. Boohoo’s business model, much like most e-retailers, lends itself well to a pandemic in which lockdowns provide consumers with more time to browse online and an increased inability to go to the high street. Even in a lockdown where dressing up for a big night out is a distant memory, it would seem Fast Fashion is still very much in fashion.
Graphic: Online shopping has surged by 129% across UK and Europe.
In order to service this soar in demand, workers in factories in Leicester still had to go into work every day. Ineligible for Statutory Sick Pay, workers would risk becoming ill as well as spreading the virus in order to be able to earn illegally low pay. Maybe you see an irony when flicking through the Boohoo 2020 annual report to find the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsibility’ mentioned 23 and 17 times, respectively.
What is perhaps most distressing is that this climate of worker exploitation within Leicester was an ‘open secret’. MP Andrew Bridgen told LBC that labour exploitation in Leicester had been common knowledge, with his own research estimating there to be 10,000 modern slaves within Leicester across approximately 250 workshops. Are we not taught history so it does not repeat itself? In fact, it was Engels himself that declared millwork during the 19th Century in England to be enslavement. One hundred and seventy years on, there seems to have been little change. In 1845, public outcry against working conditions in mills led to greater regulation over the sector. Yet, today, the Modern Slavery Act leaves too much space for wage exploitation among garment workers. In evidence heard by MP’s in 2019, it became clear garment worker protection is still not adequate.
Moreover, fast fashion’s costs are not limited to the exploitation of labour. Fast fashion has become synonymous with environmental degradation. The Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that 35% of micro-plastics in the oceans come from synthetic fibres given off whilst in the washing machine. Whilst this figure cannot be entirely accounted for by the fast fashion industry, synthetic fibres such as polyesters, nylon and acrylic are cheap and principally used to produce fast fashion items.
Meanwhile, fast fashion is built to be trendy and fleeting. But when we’ve finished with our £3 Boohoo dress or pair of jeans, and the charity shops can’t sell it because it’s a) 8 months out of fashion and b) damaged due to the poor quality, it gets shipped off to landfill with the other 300,000 tonnes of clothing binned by Brits every year. Given that a single pair of jeans requires 7,500 litres of water to produce, the UN estimates that if half of the world wore clothes for an extra nine months before listing them on eBay or buying new ones, this would reduce global carbon emissions by 8%.
Graphic: The latest trend often leaves you with a wardrobe of identical clothes.
With demand in the fashion sector set to triple globally by 2050, continuing as we are is simply not sustainable. The 2.1 billion tonnes of clothes disposed annually across the planet is not sustainable. The cause of this waste is two-fold. Firstly, the sheer volume that is demanded with consumers consuming at a rate far beyond their needs. Secondly dwindling clothing quality as fast fashion companies further streamline costs, this means many of the clothes donated to charity cannot be reused and are sold on as waste. Naturally not all this waste can be attributed to the fast fashion industry however with a high turnover rate and quickly bringing new styles to market the industry encourages excessive consumption. It is not just an environmental issue posed by the waste crisis but one of social justice too. The second hand clothing market has been critiqued on the grounds of its colonial ties, with the majority of garment waste being exported to Ghana to be reprocessed and sold. Whilst clothing quality decreases it becomes increasingly difficult for the Ghanese industry to extract value from these goods. In this way the fast fashion industry is rooted in compounded exploitation at every stage of a garment's lifespan.
An Encouraging Future
On the 12th February Germany published a draft of the world’s first supply chain law bringing accountability to German companies for human rights and environmental abuses at every point of their production chain. Citing the responsibility of companies and upholding human rights as the impetus for this legislation, it seeks to promote a more sustainable process of production across all industries. The law seeks to begin to protect all workers including the 150 million children working in factories across the world, from textile factories in Dhaka to mines in Burkina Faso. Whilst the level of fines imposed is not yet clear, when the law comes into effect in 2023 it is set to protect millions of workers. Perhaps Brexit offers a fresh opportunity for the UK to follow suit and, unlike in 1845, be on the side of labour and the planet.
For us, consumers, secondary only to our vote, our pound is our most powerful tool. And right now it seems consumers are using the power of their pound to support the Fast Fashion industry. As a consumer, each time we make a purchase we should remember the power of our pound and rather than choosing short-term trends such as Boohoo instead choose slow fashion. Shopping small and locally provides a double dividend: 1) having a low environmental impact and 2) supporting individuals rather than fast fashion behemoths who show a flagrant disregard for both people and the planet. By thriving off and reproducing a cycle of voracious and insatiable demand fast fashion occurs at the extreme end of capitalism. Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomena and it needn’t become part of the worlds socio-economic make up, certainly not in the context of a global climate crisis. Sustainable fast fashion therefore is a contradiction in terms and fundamentally cannot serve to aid a secure and sustainable future.
Graphic: Learn the power of sustainable consumption.
*Brand to watch: Sheep Inc. The world’s first carbon negative clothing company. Flying in the face of the throwaway culture entrenched by fast fashion, they offer a For-Life guarantee on all items encouraging you to buy once and buy well.
This article is written by Antonia Brown.
Antonia Brown is the co-founder of Scoop Leeds which recently launched at Leeds University in May 2021. Passionate about sustainability and politics, Antonia is...