By Amy Houghton
As well as being one of the largest contributors to global gas emissions, the fashion industry in the West constantly perpetuates its deep history of racist exploitation. Whilst the coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated the neglect of workers in the supply chain, paired with the explosion of anti-racist protests, the pandemic may serve as an awakening in the long term.
In response to the outbreak, major fashion brands have cancelled the shipping of orders from abroad and have halted payments. In Bangladesh alone, over 1000 factories have had orders worth around $1.5 billion cancelled. They have been left with little choice but to destroy vast amounts of clothes and lay off workers, or send them home with reduced pay at best. One woman in Bangladesh described to The Guardian how she has not received wages for two months. Unable to comfortably pay rent, she has been living off borrowed rice.
Garment workers’ rights were fragile to begin with, but there are fears that the pandemic is causing them to dissolve even further amidst heightened union suppression. Factories have been using the pandemic as an excuse to bury their workers’ voices. In Cambodia, one woman was imprisoned for a social media post in which she called out her factory for dismissing 88 labourers against government guidance. One factory in Myanmar that supplies clothes for Zara fired 300 workers simply on account of them belonging to a union.
There have been campaigns launched to counter these blatant violations of human rights. Lost Stock is a charity selling £35 ‘mystery boxes’ of the clothing that would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfill, promising to feed a worker and their family for a week with each purchase. The #PayUp Campaign is making sure that responsibility does not just fall on consumers, demanding that brands ensure the workers in their supply chain are paid and protected. It has already seen some success, however a multitude of companies, including Arcadia (Topshop), Primark, Gap, and Urban Outfitters are yet to honor their financial obligation to suppliers and mitigate the harm already being done
Though unintentionally for most, consumerism has slowed. Some might even be finding relief in the absence of pressure to chase the ever churning trend cycle. Luxury brand Gucci recently announced their removal of their ‘reckless’ and ‘worn out ‘ seasons that showcase new collections at least 4 times a year, to address the fashion industry’s environmental footprint. Whilst this move might mean little to the majority, it is a vital one. Luxury fashion brands lead the way for the shops that appear on our high street. Reducing the number of shows they have per year may well result in fast fashion brands following suit and reducing the amount of new lines they produce, lines that are currently updated on a weekly basis.
As the familiar Primark stampedes are appearing on the horizon, activists are desperately calling for the public to resist the government call for us to fulfill our duty as consumers. Lockdown should have provided an opportunity for people to reconsider their purchasing habits, buy more consciously, and interrogate the pressures fed to us through influencer culture and slick advertising. Unfortunately, it still feels as though the uncomfortable truths of fashion supply chains are not properly comprehended by the wider public. Though ‘sustainable’ is a term now on more people’s agenda, it has been increasingly appropriated by brands for marketing purposes and as such has been used to cover up where they still fall short.
As with the Black Lives Matter movement,