fast fashion

Ethical Fashion, Life & Style

Modern Slavery and Fast Fashion in the UK

fast fashion and modern slavery in the UK

Today I have a post from Paul McShane of the Immigration Advice Service on the links between fast fashion and modern slavery in the UK.

Earlier in July, a Sunday Times story broke regarding a garment factory in Leicester that was paying workers as little as £3.50 an hour. As the story unfolded, it explained how this garment factory made clothes for the popular online fashion label Boohoo. All the while underpaying its workers substantially.

The article was a result of an undercover reporter working at the factory. Here they witnessed first hand not just the lack of social distancing measures but also the exploitation at hand. They in particular noted a blatant disregard for paying workers the minimum wage and upholding a safe working environment.

The modern slavery story rightly caused consternation. Standard Life Aberdeen sold most of its shares in the company as a result. What’s more, they highlighted that Boohoo’s response to the revelations was wholly inadequate.

Boohoo’s Modern Slavery Case Is Not An Isolated One

But this is not an isolated tale by any means. For many years, fashion labels have had concerning links to workers who are forced to work for low pay, providing the clothing that we wear almost every day. In fact, recently the Guardian reported on how the fast-fashion industry is complicit in the forced labour of Uighur people in China. Here, the Uighurs are working to produce the cotton used for labels as diverse as Adidas, Gap, and Calvin Klein.

Fast fashion, which describes the quick turnover of designs from the catwalk to cheaper high street alternatives, has meant that the general public can access replicas of luxury apparel at prices they can afford. Yet the consequence of such low prices and a consistent cycle of new collections is severe. An estimated £30 billion worth of clothes remain unworn and hanging in many wardrobes across the UK. The industry reached £32bn in 2017; an increase of 5.4% on 2016.

Modern Slavery Techniques

One of the most exploitive modern slavery techniques employed within some fast-fashion supply chains – typically by the raw material provider of cotton or garments that then make the items of clothing – is to take on board both undocumented migrants and international students. These people often accept the low pay and precarious working conditions simply to have some form of income.

To know that 100,000 children in London alone do not have secure immigration status is deeply concerning. Half of those were born here in the UK. Yet they will not be treated as British citizens when it comes to employment. This is of paramount concern as undocumented individuals are forced into such exploitative modern slavery work due to being deemed ‘illegal’.

The Unseen Workforce

During Covid-19, the plight of exploited workers within the fast-fashion industry has become increasingly apparent. Particularly with the Boohoo scandal. Here it was clearly highlighted that many of its supply-chain workers based in a Leicester factory were paid just £3.50 an hour for grueling work.

The garment factory has additionally continued to operate throughout the pandemic, against government guidelines. Fast-fashion retailers can no longer fail to take accountability for those working to provide the very items they reap profit from. Similarly, consumers must recognise the role they play in this. No longer can the British public claim ignorance nor pretend that this is an issue occurring outside of our control. It is happening here, in the UK.

These illicit factories are not vying for the furlough scheme because it is of no benefit to them. Instead, they rely on workers who are in desperate circumstances to work for less than the national living wage.

What Can We Do?

It is essential that brands lead from the front. This means questioning their garment suppliers. It also means investigating the conditions that their workers toil under. Already, Boohoo has seen its value drop by £500M. Particularly as Standard Life Aberdeen questioned their approach to championing workers’ rights. But this change also requires pressure from consumers. Often the only thing those with a mind on profit will listen to.

One of the reasons these premises can thrive is due to workers operating in a climate of fear. As the UK has become more hostile to migrants – with its ‘hostile environment’ policy specifically targeting those who lack the required documentation – concerns of deportation drive these vulnerable individuals to accept such low wages and dire working conditions. This includes those who have been trafficked into the UK. Such a deeply embedded fear of deportation and local authorities increases the likelihood of accepting anything their employer dictates, no matter the wage or working conditions.

It is only through exposing these unacceptable conditions that brands are forced to address this. Yet undocumented migrants recognise that they will be offered no protection from the UK government. They know they will instead likely face punishment. This makes it inevitable that exploited workers remain silent, allowing such modern slavery practices to thrive.

The government may have made noise regarding how abhorrent such working practices are. And yet they fail to address the very immigration policies which feed this vicious cycle. To make real, substantive change, the hostile environment policy must be scrapped and fast-fashion retailers must be held to account.

Ethical Fashion, Life & Style

What’s So Bad About Fast Fashion Anyway?

problems of fast fashion

Today I have a post from Lianne Bell, author of How On Earth Can I Be Eco-Friendly*, on the problems of fast fashion, and what you can do to help.

What’s So Bad About Fast Fashion?

I recently signed up for Slow Fashion Season. Here 25,000 people have pledged not to buy any clothes for 3 months, between 21st of June and 21st of September. The aim is to raise awareness about the wasteful nature of the fast fashion industry and how you as a consumer play a role in it.

I love sustainable fashion. So much so that friends, family, and people on Instagram all ask me the same thing – how can I shop more sustainably? And my response is pretty simple – just stop buying clothes. Because let’s be honest, the rate at which we are collectively consuming clothing is beyond nauseating.

The number of garments being produced has doubled in the last 20 years. As a result of this, we are wasting the equivalent of one garbage truck full of textiles every single second.  This is a staggering amount of waste, that has severe ramifications on the planet.

Fast Fashion and Economics

Over the last 20 years, as the price of our goods and services has steadily risen, clothing has not. In fact, clothing is the only consumable which has deflated in price. It has instead done a complete 180. It’s dropped considerably in comparison to other consumables, and thus completely defying the laws of economics. But why?

One of the main factors which contributed to this was the Multi-Fibre Agreement. This was an international trade agreement that imposed quotas on the volume of clothing we could import from developing countries. When this ended in 2005 it opened the door for suppliers and factory owners in developing countries to work on a larger scale with major corporations within the western retail world. 

Western corporations were able to treat the labour of garment workers as though it were a commodity. The factory owners offered labour at lower and lower prices in order to meet the desired garment prices. These prices were demanded by the high street fast fashion stores attempting to meet their profit margin targets.

When Cheap Equals Disposable

If you’re sat there wondering why cheap fast-fashion clothing is such a problem, then do not fear, you are not alone. I thought the exact same thing. This was until I realised that the heart of the problem lies in the fact that we’ve come to think of clothing as disposable and easily replaceable.

When something is so readily available to us, it devalues the whole item. We don’t even have to think about it. We just buy it, aimlessly and needlessly. Half the time, we’ll buy clothing, then send it off to a charity shop without ever wearing it

This creates a whole new problem. Once our high street charity shops are overrun by cheap, generic clothing which they can’t sell, they bundle it off to developing countries. Here it is chopped up into rags, sold on at markets, or thrown into landfill.

The town of Panipat in North India recycles over 100,000 tonnes of our cast-offs every year. So much so that it is known as the world’s “cast off capital“.

The women of Panipat that shred these practically unworn garments have surmised that there is a water shortage in the Western world. That’s because the mindless nature of our clothing consumption is so alien to them, that they assume it’s too expensive for us to wash our clothes. This is the only way for them to make sense of how we discard our clothing after only wearing it a handful of times.  

What Can We Do?

So what can we do to stop this deluge of clothing? Well, this brings me back to Slow Fashion Season. By avoiding buying from fast fashion brands; trading, upcycling or DIYing clothingbuying second-hand and vintage clothing; and/or supporting sustainable, local, small fashion labels who may be struggling due to COVID-19, then by acting as a crowd we can be a force for change. Change for ourselves, the people around us, and the policies and industries that are woefully inadequate.

The fashion industry should be more sustainable. And the fashion industry should treat its workers fairly. We can have a part in this through our own consumption changes. We can also call for transformations of the fashion industry can help bring about the changes needed.

Enjoyed this post? Do check out this fast fashion infographic that has some pretty shocking information.