Fast fashion factories: Why are brands like Oh Polly and SHEIN pretending to be honest now?

By Priya Raj

Published Jun 30, 2023 at 02:22 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

What was once fast fashion’s dirty little secret is now a tactfully used marking tool by brands. SCREENSHOT investigates the new age of radical transparency.

“Out of sight, out of mind” was how brands once approached their sweatshops—a harsh but fitting description—in countries in Asia and South America. Consumers are now smarter than they once were, or the problems got too big to ignore. Either way, brands have started using their third-party production facilities as smart marketing tools, only they’re just not quite smart enough.

But this outsourcing to factories is not just a fast fashion problem. Haute couture brand Dior presented its show in India earlier this year in collaboration with an embroidery school in Mumbai, after it came under fire for outsourcing its designs to factories in India, as first reported by The New York Times.

Brands responsibly outsourcing to Asia is a debate which has been revisited time and time again, with no real thesis. This has all recently been brought into question with the SHEIN influencer trip discourse. The now viral trip showed a group of influencers on a visit to SHEIN’s facility in Guangzhou, China. The coverage of the influencers is chaotic, to say the least, with TikTok netizens sceptical over whether the facility was built only for the trip, with actual production happening elsewhere.

It begs the question, why post it in the first place? Surely brands are shooting themselves in the foot by putting their business online for the world to see. As labels fight for social relevancy, trends are moving away from heavily produced content into organic, so-called behind-the-scenes themes. The ‘brave’ brands followed suit and are creating more in-depth content about how collections are made and designed. This is a tactic called “radical transparency,” as confirmed by Ayesha Barenblat, the founder and CEO at Remake, a global advocacy organisation fighting for social and environmental issues in the clothing industry.

“Brands try to capitalise on growing public interest in sustainability with greenwashing tactics,” says Barenblat. Today, consumers expect transparency and want to know where their clothing comes from, and how it’s made. BoF’s State of Fashion report in 2022 detailed that “sustainability is particularly important in gaining the trust of younger fashion consumers, as some 43 per cent of gen Zers say they actively seek out companies that have a solid sustainability reputation.”

UK brand Oh Polly has been posting its own questionable production facilities on social media. In a now-deleted TikTok, the brand displayed a production facility, likely in South Asia—a country known to be exploited for its low-cost workers and services. The factory worker in shot was seen creating the company’s ‘Celestial’ collection, though there’s nothing celestial about underpaid workers.

This collection is dubbed as being “created by our team of talented artisans” on the Oh Polly website, with the cheapest item starting at £59, though there is no mention of where these artisans are based. Netizens were quick to call Oh Polly out for its misled judgment, comments flooded the fashion brand’s page with questions about how it’s paying its workers. In response, the social media team simply directed the concerned users towards a generic Modern Slavery Statement hidden away on the footer of its website. Greenwashing much?

The label’s Modern Slavery Statement is one you’ll find a similar variation of on most fast fashion sites. It’s a PDF document that lists what the brand is doing to make sure there’s no funny business going on at its facilities. Oh Polly’s own agreement states that it issues a code of conduct to its suppliers, which details its “no tolerance policy” for concerns like forced and child labour, as well as dangerous working conditions. It also goes on to say that when Oh Polly begins working with a new supplier or facility, it extensively reviews country-specific risks, the facility’s reputation, and vulnerability to slavery and human trafficking. All in all, this doesn’t tell us anything.

There’s no transparency about what happens if any of this is breached after the company signs a contract with the facility, nor any details of the annual audits, which Oh Polly requires to be conducted by an independent third party, as stated on its Modern Slavery Statement.

It’s not the first time a brand has been called out on its shady practices, but the issue is that consumer rage never outlasts the season. It also begs the question, why don’t brands simply avoid utilising these factories? Other than being significantly cheaper to outsource to such factories in Asia, these also allow C-suite members to be unaccountable. They get to hold their hands up and say “we didn’t know” when something goes awry, because it’s happening on the other side of the world.

“Accountability and progress only come from worker-led legislation, binding agreements like the International Accord, and supporting union-led demands like the recent wage negotiations happening in Bangladesh,” noted Barenblat. She went on to explain that union partners are feeding back that workers are not able to afford food and necessities due to inflation and, without legislation in place to protect them, aren’t automatically entitled to a wage increase.

And, with the brands who’re outsourcing to these facilities not putting any requirements on the owners to have sufficient controls in place either, the workers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no one to turn to.

Though fashion ultimately needs policy and legislation to protect garment workers, consumers need to be buying less and when they do purchase, do so more consciously. Look at labels, understand where your clothing comes from, and how it’s made. Take the time to research the brands you purchase from. The folks at Good On You have rated thousands of brands on their social and environmental sustainability to make it even easier. Yes, these problems seem much bigger than the consumer, but the change is already happening, and with the rise of AI and blockchain technology improving supply chain transparency, it’s now too big a wave to ignore.

We attempted to reach out to the team at Oh Polly for comment. However, perhaps expectedly, received no response from them.

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