Even before the Leicester garment factory reports, cheap and throwaway clothing was beyond its sell-by date. Boohoo and other brands need to change their ways – so should consumers.
Everyone’s identity was allowed to flotilla unattached during lockdown. As the normal routines of life crumbled into a free-floating maelstrom of Netflix and pasta bakes, obsessions, manias and strange desires have surfaced.
Fast fashion sales have seen a spike and many are looking for a different life than their current reality. They imagine themselves enjoying brunch cocktails on a balcony at a hotel in Ibiza, or partying the night away in “the bar” in their Sliding Doors world. They logged onto cheap clothing websites and purchased a polyester playsuit, several bold separates, and a nylon gown in a snappy printed that will be worn three times.
Hanger appeal might tempt consumers, but at what price? Boohoo’s share price has tanked as alarm grows around the treatment of the workers in one of its suppliers’ Leicester factories. Some of the allegations include unsafe working conditions, lockdowns, lack of protective equipment, and long-term employees being paid between PS3.50 to PS5 an hour, which is less than half the national living wages. Boohoo said that it is currently investigating the allegations and will cut all ties with suppliers who violate its code of conduct.
This is not shocking at all. Over the last few years, awareness of the unequal and exploitative production conditions in fast fashion has grown. Fashion is a complex industry with a long supply chain, making it difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for the exploitation. Fashion industry activism goes far beyond Leicester’s garment district. It addresses sweatshop labour, factory conditions and child exploitation as well as the ecological costs of the entire global cycle of clothing manufacturing. However, lockdown has brought simmering issues to boiling point and they are now difficult to ignore.
Fast fashion is not for everyone. The consumer is buying a fantasy, an image of themselves. Although the retail price is low, the real cost is paid by workers. These clothes are bought by young women for cheap, disposable fun. However, the factory workers who make them are seen as more disposable and less valuable by fashion-brand bosses and purchasers.
Gender is a key factor in the division of labour: while women work in factories, male workers are in warehouses or as delivery drivers. Racial inequality is also a major factor in the wider society. When we were all snitching and dobbing on our neighbors, the “urban vigilante” phase was in lockdown. I used to rage-watch the delivery drivers go up and down the streets with their soft grey plastic boxes of crappy beachwear. All of the drivers were either black or brown. All of them looked tired. They didn’t seem to have gloves, a mask, bleach spray or hand sanitizer. They had to touch dozens upon dozens of parcels, doorbells, and porch-fronts every day.
One might argue that it is necessary to sacrifice black and brown workers in order to keep the economy afloat. Otherwise, the economy will slide into full depression with high unemployment. However, Boohoo chief executive Mahmud kamani is a millionaire. I made a mistake. He is actually a billionaire. He is also the largest shareholder in Boohoo, which also owns Pretty Little Thing (and Nasty Gal). Oh, and Coast, Karen Millen, Oasis, Warehouse. Often, mid-range and cheap clothes are made in the same factories by different people at the same price.
This is the way that big fashion companies in mainstream fashion operate all too often. The clothes cost more or less depending on the brand’s marketing spin. However, the workers are paid very little and treated as dirt. When you start to look at the fashion industry in detail, it’s attractive exterior soon becomes as transparent and flimsy as low-quality dress fabric.