Manufacturing Indifference: Fast Fashion and Consumerism

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.

Not Another Christmas Hot Take

It’s that time of year again. A time for family, for good will to all, for shopping centres and supermarkets and, for Unilever executives everywhere, diving Scrooge McDuck style into massive money piles as Lynx shower sets fly off the shelves.

It’s telling how much we, as a society, lie to ourselves about Christmas when you really examine the small talk that gets passed around at this time of year.

 “Are you all set?”, “Are you ready?” or “The big day is only X days away now!” All of these Christmas staples- delivered by family, friends and colleagues with wide, bloodshot eyes and fixed grins- suggest a sort of holiday of anxiety. Like having to prepare for some kind of exam we all take at the end of the year, in which how much you love your friends and family is measured in how good a present you bought them.

This can be a very stressful time of year for many. For those who struggle all year round, the added pressure of providing enough gifts and loads of food can be overwhelming.

Understandably, people want to provide the perfect Christmas for their loved ones- but is the perfect Christmas one filled with culturally mandated expense? It hasn’t always been the case that this means buying lots of things for everyone. As far back as the 1800’s people have been complaining about the consumerism that has wormed its way in to every aspect of the holiday. In an edition of Ladies Home Journal in 1890 it was noted that:

“the Christmas of our youth is degenerating into a festival of the storekeepers.”

This rings true when thinking of the Christmas of today. As economies have become more and more global there has been a trend towards a more Americanised holiday period. Black Friday, once only an American consumerist tradition on the first Friday after Thanksgiving, has made its way to the UK and has extended to a whole week. The idea being that with people already in that festive mood they will be more willing to spend a bit more.

Is this really a good thing though? It’s estimated that if everyone in the world consumed on the same level as the average US citizen, we would need 4 whole planet Earths just to provide the resources. We also currently have around 12 million tons of plastic entering the oceans every year, forming giant patches of plastic waste that eventually breaks down into micro plastic, one of the biggest polluters on our planet.

A study conducted by Northwestern University in Illinois found that anyone placing great value on wealth, status or material possessions is more likely to suffer from depression and anti-social tendencies.

On average families in the UK spend around £500 more in December than in any other month. For many this is simply too much socially commanded expense and they turn to predatory loans companies, which they then spend most of the next year paying off, if they don’t simply fall into more debt. It’s widely accepted that debt is one of the major causes of mental health decline in the developed world. 

“So what? Christmas is cancelled then?”

This isn’t to suggest, of course, that we stop celebrating the holiday season. However, maybe we all should have a rethink about what really is important at this time of year. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the relentless pace of consumption overdrive that Christmas has come to represent and be burnt out as a result. What’s more, so all-consuming are our efforts to attain holiday excellence, as we are encouraged to “postcard-perfect” our lives and experiences, that we can often forget those around us who may be suffering this time of year.

 Luckily for many, there are and always will be people that reach out to support others around this time of year.

 Some people would have you believe that human beings are inherently selfish and although there are definitely people that are (looking at you Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerberg/ Sports Direct guy), as a species we have only flourished through mutual aid. In todays society this is usually more prevalent in the working classes- it’s happening around you all the time. In a recent post in a Facebook group for Kilmarnock, a father (we won’t be naming anyone) posted asking if anyone knew of any money lenders. He had been struggling financially, and just wanted his kids to be able to open something on Christmas morning like everyone else. A few people made recommendations, but for the most part the comments were filled with generous people offering to provide gifts for his kids or help out in any way that they could. Increasingly, this is not an uncommon sight as many people decide to try and provide some comfort to those more in need around the festive season.

As we seem to be facing a difficult future perhaps we should reconsider our relationship with pointless goods and stop allowing businesses to commodify happiness. This becomes more difficult as relentless marketing co-opts the language of community and sharing that the holiday is founded on to sell you more and more things, but truly nothing is more important than the friends and family that accompany us through life and maybe if we are a little kinder to each other and to the planet that sustains us, we can get to a place where we don’t rely on “stuff” to make us happy and can spread a little joy over the holidays.

With our “Bah Humbug!” moment out of the way, we’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I hope it’s a good one.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash