This past week, fashion industry giant Boohoo made headlines as news of poor working conditions and underpayment came to light from its supply chains in Leicester’s garment district; workers are being paid as little as £3 per hour, well below the national minimum wage, as well as being required to work in unsafe conditions throughout the pandemic, with no social distancing or safety measures put in place. With Leicester being one of the first cities forced to implement a localised lockdown in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it is believed that these conditions in garment factories contributed to the rapid spread of the virus among the community. Developments in this wave of fashion industry controversy are ongoing- two days ago The Times announced the findings of an investigation which similarly implicates the Quiz brand in sourcing products from garment factories with a flagrant disregard for workers’ rights. As “shocked and appalled” as Boohoo- and us along with them- may claim to be at finding what amounts to slavery on our own doorstep, this is nothing new. While some may be genuinely surprised workers are treated this way in our own country, we, like the bosses at Boohoo, know the suffering that goes into producing the shirts on our backs and the shoes on our feet; “Made in Bangladesh” labels on £4 Primark dresses don’t exactly conjure images of workplace utopia’s.
While we are hazily aware of oppression in the Global South, this level of awareness very seldom translates into the kind of moral outrage garnered by analogous oppressions in our immediate environment. Geographical as well as cultural distance help us to otherise workers suffering in far off places. Yet this is not a problem solely for foreign governments and traders to deal with. As this latest affair shows, the oppressive and callous conditions of capitalist production persist everywhere; even in ostensibly ‘developed’ countries like our own, huge retailers and restaurant chains will routinely underpay and overwork staff. Last year, the Low Pay Commission found a record number of workers in the UK, most of them women, were being paid less than the national minimum wage. If companies with huge public profiles like Wagamama and Marriott can get away with underpaying employees and violating their rights, is it any wonder that for migrant workers locked away in sweatshops the situation is significantly worse?
‘Fast fashion’ has developed exponentially in the last decade, as high street shopping has been overtaken by the online sphere and the demand for personalised convenience. As highlighted by clothing magnate Eileen Fisher (while accepting an industry award for environmentalism), “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world… second only to oil… it’s a really nasty business… it’s a mess.” At every level, from the harvesting of raw materials, to production, to transit, to distribution, to consumption and finally to disposal, the environmental impact of fast fashion is gargantuan. Behind endless sales and new seasons in perpetuity, inland seas are drained, landfills pile high with poor quality, instantly dated clothes and rivers are poisoned with dye. Cultural awareness of the environmental impact of our consumption habits has arguably never been higher, as we hurtle on towards climate catastrophe. In recent years, the high-profile protestations of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have dominated much of this conversation, and around the world, leaders are being put under increased pressure to develop a ‘Green New Deal’. As this snappy business-backed euphemism suggests, the more radical (often non-white) voices of the environmental movement are subsumed by a mainstream which proposes investment in emergent technologies, streamlining production and developing a carbon-neutral ‘eco-capitalism’. Quick to dismiss the utopian visions of far- out socialists or even social democrats, liberal policymakers the world over have seemingly found their own fairy tale to inhabit.
Understanding our consumption habits in terms of environmental impact is hugely important if we are to have any chance of preventing- or, at this stage, mitigating- climate change, and no doubt there are emergent or developing technologies which will help us accomplish a reduction in the footprint of industries like fashion. Yet conversations around the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ typically fails to provide any consideration for the workers, whose already precarious existence will face the most upheaval at the hands of automation or efficiency technologies. Some continue to argue that innovations on the production line benefit workers by increasing output while minimizing their required labour input; as workers in the fashion industry have known since the invention of the sewing machine, any perceived reduction in exertion leads inevitably to an increase in hours and a deflation of wages. Whatever the case may be, these people won’t simply cease to exist once we fully automate production lines and will need to be accounted for.
The coronavirus lockdown has created the space and conditions in which this conversation could reasonably be expected to come to a head; earlier in the pandemic, online retailers reported huge surges in profits as more and more people turned to online outlets for their grocery, entertainment and consumption needs. This uptick in revenue and usage has led to increased scrutiny. Or, at least, more conscious scrutiny. After all, environmental groups have been warning of the devastating impact of over-consumption for decades, and similar reports to those shaming Boohoo and Quiz have come and gone in years past. While it might typically be easy for us to think of these as issues solely for private business and government, the true impact and danger of our consumption demands- not only for the environment but for workers- has been thrown into sharp relief by the threat the coronavirus poses.
Yet it’s almost easier to imagine the end of the world as a result of a deadly pandemic than the end of rampant consumerism, a mould we have been collectively shaped and moulded into since at least the 1920s. Industrial capital has manufactured our indifference to the suffering of workers for decades. When one story breaks through, as has happened with Boohoo and the Leicester factories, they follow a standardised playbook: plead ignorance, pledge funding to weed out the bad actors and wait for everything to blow over. We can’t rely on the self-regulation of huge companies to improve working conditions or avert climate disaster. While they may offer empty gestures and platitudes (the £10mil pledged by Boohoo to address this controversy is less than 7% of the £150 millon bonus scheme already planned for bosses), these organisations will forever be the propagators of unchecked and exponential consumption. It will take unlearning and challenging our roles as consumers to exert the kind of pressure needed to win big for the environment and workers.