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The fashion industry has needed a revolution for decades, could the pandemic and protests finally ignite the necessary change?

A fascinating explanation of the impact of the global corona pandemic on the fashion industry and its important links to the Black Lives Matter movement and the lasting impact of colonialism.

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, an unlearning needs to take place. If protests and newly widespread discussions are anything to go by, this is not too much to ask. Despite the horrific circumstances under which they were deemed necessary, the reigniting of conversations surrounding colonialism are hopefully a step in the right direction. If you are anti-racist you are anti-colonialism. If you are anti-colonialism, you should be anti-fast fashion. The outsourcing of predominantly black and brown cheap labour by brands with predominantly white leadership is simply an explicit form of archaic colonial practices in a modern-day setting. With multi-millionaire Presidents and CEOs, these brands can afford to show up. Change cannot solely rest on our individual buying habits but conscious consumption by those who are able is vital in order to send a message, and the worldwide lockdown has shown that we can cope without a weekly trip to the high street. In terms of directly holding brands to account, the responses of brands such as ASOS and Adidas to the #PayUp campaign show that speaking up works. The mass calling out of Loreal for its mistreatment of Munroe Bergdorf and the resulting appointment of her onto their diversity board showed that public pressure works. If ever there was an opportunity to resist and disrupt the existing fast fashion system, it is now.

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