Consumers have been dialing up their scrutiny of the fast fashion industry for years. The repercussions of reckless consumerism is weighing on our collective conscious more than ever. With an impending climate crisis, the sustainable nature of supply chains has come into question. Brands have changed tack in an effort to keep our business. Big players in the industry, such as Zara and H&M, have made sweeping commitments to environmentally conscious business reforms. However, the industry still faces critique on several fronts. A so-called ‘race to the bottom’ in pricing has had dire human consequences from child labour to unlivable wages. Early this month, fashion brand Boohoo was exposed by an undercover Sunday Times journalist, with the accusation of ‘slave labour’ and unsafe conditions in one of its UK factories. The reaction from the public was swift, with #boycottboohoo tearing through social media, and putting the entire industry—and factory labour in general– back under the microscope.
Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, workers’ rights have been constant in the headlines. Subpar social distancing measures in meat-processing plants led to huge outbreaks. Amazon factory workers have gone on strike over unsatisfactory pandemic working conditions. Lawsuits have been filed on their behalf. In March, when it became clear that seasonal fashion would be significantly disrupted, much of the garment industry came to a standstill. Giant Western labels began cancelling orders with factories in Bangladesh in mass, often refusing to pay for already manufactured product and leaving them to foot the bill entirely. As fast fashion brands clambered to minimise their own losses, data from the Bangladeshi and Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association revealed, that at least £2.4bn of existing orders were cancelled and over a million garment workers sent home without pay. The consequences threaten to impoverish an entire workforce. A widespread social media campaign, started by Ayesha Barenblat, urged brands to #PayUp, while an online petition has gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures. This reckoning has encouraged several prominent brands such as Gap and Levi’s to honor original financial commitments. Nonetheless, several others such as Primark and URBN (Urban Outfitters, Free People, Anthropologie), show little sign of budging. The Boohoo Boycott, which exposes the issue closer to home, has outraged many people. After a 45% increase in online sales over lockdown, Boohoo’s stock prices have taken a nose dive since the accusations came to light. Online marketplaces such as Amazon and ASOS have since publically cut ties with the brand. However, many activists see the move for other fast fashion brands to solely vilify BooHoo, as hypocritical. In order to sell their products at the low prices they do, they all must also be tied up in worker exploitation.
By eliminating many of the distractions of our busy schedules, the Coronavirus lockdown has created a situation where people are more tuned-in than ever. The Black Lives Matter protests, which continue globally, have raised our awareness to overlooked injustices. The pandemic itself has exposed the vast inequalities in our society as a whole. It has created a culture of vigilance, launching us into a period of unprecedented accountability. Consumers’ collective memory is getting longer and their tolerance for fast-fashion’s failures is becoming lower. Brands, whether they are in fashion, food, or any manufactured consumer good, should not breathe a sigh of relief when, this week or the next, they aren’t the face of a scandal like BooHoo. Brands have a collective responsibility to proactively do better. Otherwise, their days are numbered.