COVID-19 Exposes the Damning Faultiness Within the Fashion Industry – Both Dealing With Deep Inequalities and Unsustainability

The UK is the epicentre of fast fashion consumption in Europe. Now, the government is being urged by a cross-party group of MPs to implement steps to start fixing the throw-away culture fuelled by fast fashion.

WORDS Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse
IMAGES Clean Clothes Campaign

When the term ‘fast fashion’ was first introduced in the ’90s, Macmillan Dictionary described it as “like fast food, it might seem like a good idea in the moment, but can have undesirable and possibly unforeseen consequences.” In today’s cultural lexicon, the phrase has become so overused and describes such a vast part of the contemporary fashion and textiles industry, that the meaning of the word ‘fast’ in ‘fast fashion’ has somewhat lost its effect. 

In reality, the speed at which the fashion industry now finds itself is no longer sustainable – decades of mass-produced, low quality and cheap price-tagged items have flooded the market, creating an expectation of prices so low that overseas factories, unsafe working environments and even slave labour have become the norm. Consumerism has reached its tipping point, with many high-street labels’ business structure designed to make you feel ‘out of trend’ only one week after purchasing. Since 2014, the industry produces nearly 100 billion pieces of new clothing every year. Due to current VAT rules, it is more cost-effective for brands to destroy unwanted clothing than it is to simply give it to those in need.

Photo Credit – Dabindu Collective

Our trend-driven consumerism has reached such a state of overdrive that we’re creating lasting damage to our planet. While the figures are debated, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has calculated that the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year and this is presumed to rise to a ludicrous 26% by 2050 if we continue on this climb.

One factor responsible for these emissions is the international travel many fast fashion garments embark on before reaching customers. In 2017, an investigation into a Zara ‘Made in Morocco’ dress found it had been to at least five countries before ending up on the shop floor – raw materials from Europe, fibres spun in Egypt, woven in China, dyed in Spain, sewn together in Morocco, packaged in Spain and then sent to Zara stores in either the UK, US or one of the other 91 countries where they stock.

And this international travel is not only causing detrimental environmental effects – the more hands a garment goes through, the harder it is to track back. Tracking where clothing has traveled is vital in making sure a company is protecting workers in its supply chain. Many brands simply don’t know where their raw materials come from or where they’re made – it’s blissful ignorance, and it’s on the part of us, the consumers, too. 

Many brands simply don’t know where their raw materials come from or where they’re made – it’s blissful ignorance, and it’s on the part of us, the consumers, too. 

Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

That’s why in 2015, Fashion Revolution created The Fashion Transparency Index, an annual report holding 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers to account. The report reviews the published information a brand shares on social and environmental topics such as animal welfare, biodiversity, chemicals, climate, due diligence, forced labour, freedom of association, gender equality, living wages, purchasing practices, supplier disclosure, waste and recycling, working conditions and more.

“Lack of transparency costs lives. When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed seven years ago, killing and injuring thousands of garment workers, people had to dig through the rubble looking for clothing labels in order to figure out which brands were producing clothes there. It is impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected, working conditions are adequate and the environment is safeguarded without knowing where their products are being made. That’s why transparency is essential. It is the first step in holding brands to account for the human rights and environmental impacts of their practices,” Fashion Revolution explains in a statement on their website.

10%

of global carbon dioxide emissions are produced
by the fashion industry.

7%

of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands were able
to publish information on the suppliers of their raw materials.

2%

of those brands have published a structured plan on
how they will achieve a living wage for all workers across
their supply chains.

How can companies ensure the workers in factories they use are being treated fairly if they don’t even know what factories they use? To further this, how can we hold companies accountable if we too don’t know what factories they use or how the people working in those factories are being treated? Transparency is key, it’s the only way to ensure humanitarian rights are being upheld. In turn, with companies creating ‘fairer trade’ products, consumers also benefit with better sourced products.

In this year’s report, only 40% of the 250 brands included published their manufacturer list, 24% published some of their processing facilities and a mere 7% published some of their raw material suppliers. This leaves a mass of information unaccounted for, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the lack of transparency from these brands anymore. That’s why lobbyists, including Fashion Revolution, are pushing for it to be mandatory for brands to publish a full list of all suppliers and manufacturers used in the creation of a product.

Transparency and traceability are enablers of change.

Leslie Johnston, CEO of philanthropic enterprise The Laudes Foundation

Another disappointing finding from the report showed that only 2% of brands have published a structured plan on how they will achieve a living wage for all workers across their supply chains. This is devastating for the 4.1 million garment workers worldwide that are employed by Western fashion brands, many of whom struggle to afford life’s basic necessities.

These already frightening statistics, created from data pre-pandemic, have only been exacerbated by the events of this tumultuous year. To make matters worse, many powerful US and European fashion businesses have refused to pay their overseas suppliers for more than £12.3 billion worth of goods since the outbreak. These companies include household names such as Urban Outfitters, Topshop, Mothercare and Asda.

As we become increasingly aware of the limitations of the Earth’s natural resources, we know the fashion industry must change for good. It must become greener in all aspects of its production, adopting renewable energy, new recycling methods, reduced use of non-biodegradable polyester which dominates the fashion industry. The industry should focus on producing quality, long-lived items.

While many facets of the climate crisis can feel impenetrable to create meaningful change as an individual, it is vitally important that we, as consumers, acknowledge and harness the power we hold in a consumer-driven industry. While systemic change needs to happen at every level of the fashion cycle, this will only happen with our continued focus and effort.

Let these companies know you’re unhappy by using the hashtag #PayUp across social media to draw attention to the companies withholding pay from workers and encourage them to pledge to right their wrongs.

Persuading and pressuring businesses to sign the transparency pledge is another vital step in ensuring safe working conditions and fair pay for workers across the globe. Labour Behind The Label shares a plethora of information about the #PayUp campaign as does the #TransparencyPledge.

It’s easy to say that the need for fast-fashion is driven by the wants of the consumers, but in a culture that brands us by what we wear, how often we wear it and where we bought it from, we are conditioned to give in to the pressures of these corporate advertisements. We have to call out these brands who refuse to tend to humanitarian and environmental rights, but it’s important to not take on the burden as the public. It’s the job of these fashion corporations and the government to handle these issues we raise to them and fix them. Holding higher powers accountable for not wielding change is imperative.

If you want to read up more on the importance of transparency in fashion and look at the full breakdown of brands included in the Fashion Index report, you can read it here.

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