In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appeared online fast fashion retailer Boohoo has been thriving while some of its factories based in Leicester remained open illegally, which potentially led to the city’s new coronavirus outbreak.
According to a new report published by human rights group Labour Behind The Label, workers in the factories that supply a number of British fast fashion brands such as Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing were put at risk of contracting coronavirus by working without adequate ventilation, recommended space to social distance or PPE. Are brands like Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing responsible for Leicester’s new spike in COVID-19 cases?
Since March, Boohoo has seen a 22 per cent increase in its share price value due to the compulsory shutting of retail stores, which in turn led to more and more people shopping online. Shipping out an average of 400,000 garments per week, it became clear that Boohoo’s main priority during the outbreak was to somehow keep its employees working while the rest of the UK went on lockdown.
As most of us were locked indoors, the internet became our main source of entertainment and escape, which in turn required many factory workers to risk their lives in order to make ours just a tiny bit better. After all, who didn’t indulge in online shopping during the pandemic?
On 18 June, Health Secretary Matt Hancock reported a COVID-19 outbreak in Leicester, but instead of responding to the plea for action, Leicester City Council’s public health director Ivan Browne assured this rise in cases did not require a local lockdown, which meant production carried on unchanged. This delayed response inevitably spread the disease further while garments continued to be manufactured and sold to the general public.
Meanwhile, according to Dazed, Boohoo announced its plan to pay out a bonus of £150 million to its two co-founders and other executives as the brand saw an impressive increase in its share prices during the lockdown. In comparison, a report published by The Financial Times in 2018 found that some factory workers were being paid as little as £3.50 per hour, over £5 less than the UK minimum wage of £8.72.
As fast fashion continues to fuel modern slavery and as the pandemic continues to fuel fast fashion, I wonder if we’ve fallen into a vicious circle. Whether those factories in Leicester are responsible for the city’s new outbreak should not be seen as the only issue here. This example should push us to rethink that ‘summer sale’ approach to fast fashion. Is it worth the splurge? In this case, I would tend to say it doesn’t. The need for transparency is crucial now more than ever.
Last month, British MPs rejected plans for a 1p per garment fashion tax albeit our climate crisis. At the same time, a Missguided £1 bikini appeared on the market—something that should be beyond concerning for everyone. The U.K. has the highest consumption of fast fashion in the whole of Europe, with over a million tonnes of clothing ending up in landfills each year. So how much power do we as consumers really have when it comes to sustainability and why is this discussion still going on?
The swimsuit sold out promptly, with 1,000 bikinis dropping everyday on the brand’s website, which further raises the question of how it is possible to produce and retail an entire set for just £1, free delivery included. Missguided presented an official statement claiming the production cost was of a higher value to the retail cost, and that the bikini was a “gift” to their customers, in the name of “empowering women to look and feel good without breaking the bank”. Interestingly enough, 78 percent of the brand’s employees are female, yet, they are a 46 percent median wage gap between men and women. The brand ‘excuses’ itself on its website by claiming that this is due to “having more women than men” in lower paid positions, and fewer in higher ones. The lower paid positions include the factory ones, where workers often make as little as £3.50 an hour—contrasting with the U.K.’s minimum wage of £7.83 for over 25s.
Despite being one of the U.K.’s leading retail brands, according to the statistics conducted by the House of Commons, Missguided is also the least environmentally friendly, rejecting the use of recycled or organic materials in their products, clearly avoiding the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) programme as well as the sustainable clothing action plan. The government has the most power when it comes to regulating fast fashion, and yet, British MPs have rejected numerous regulations on the industry.
Many of these dismissals include the 1p per item tax to raise £35 million for clothing collection and sorting, the ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock, and even making a law requiring brands to publically release a modern slavery statement. In addition to this, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has also urged to put lessons on designing, creating and repairing clothing into the school curriculum, as a means to end the era of ‘disposable clothing’ as well as for the MPs to explore a ‘sharing’ economy in which hiring and swapping would replace purchasing. The failure to implement these rules and regulations results in the continuation of unsustainable, disposable mass production, which ultimately affects the environmental crisis even further.
Marketing alone has so much power in influencing what the consumer chooses to buy, and fast fashion brands know this. The infamous swimsuit was advertised by last year’s Love Island contestant Ellie Brown, and being the official fashion sponsor of Love Island 2018, Missguided saw a 40 percent increase in sales. This year, another fast fashion brand, I Saw It First, secured a spot as the show’s official fashion partner, spending around £2 million on the partnership. With over 4.2 million viewers of Love Island’s first episode alone (57 percent appear to be 16-34 years old) the show has the ability to reach a huge number of potential consumers, and yet, it still decides to go for unethical brands.
Similarly, Emily Ratajkowski has recently launched a collection with Boohoo owned Nasty Gal, a brand known to be criticised for their mistreatment of workers while Kylie Jenner advertises for knock-off brand Fashion Nova via her Instagram with over 139.5 million followers. Celebrities and influencers make a conscious choice to promote these brands and in an age where Instagram seems to dictate all new trends, the choices they make allow us to feel a sense of relatability that we, too, can afford to dress like one of the Jenners. Although there is nothing wrong with that idea, influencers should also make a deliberate choice to promote more sustainable alternatives to their followers.
While it is the consumer who creates a demand for fast fashion, it’s unfair to entirely blame the consumer for the harmful environmental impacts or unethical working conditions of the industry. Of course, it’s true that spending £1 on a bikini could seem immensely appealing, but it is important to consider not only the impact this product will have on our planet, but also how the people who made it are affected by such low prices.
Affordable clothing is not only appealing but is essential too, and we consumers can help so much by simply buying less, shopping vintage or seeking other sustainable alternatives. Until the government or the brands alone begin regulating their carbon footprint, perhaps those with a platform should consider twice before encouraging impulse buying. Just putting it out there. In addition, Missguided has now changed the price of the bikini from £1 to £5—a feeble attempt at clearing their conscience or is selling a swimsuit for a literal pound not making enough profit? Either way, nice try.