By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
I have posted frequently on fast fashion’s horrific waste footprint.
But the fashion industry has another dirty little secret: persistent horrific labor conditions.
These are not just confined d to factories in developing countries.
Yesterday’s s Guardian features a story discussing the “national shame” of working conditions in Leicester’s fast fashion factories:
Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, raised a question on Tuesday about the continuing state of working conditions in factories supplying the UK’s booming fast fashion industry, and sought a meeting with business secretary Kelly Tolhurst for clarity over enforcement of the national minimum wage.
One would have thought that we were talking about 19th-century working conditions, rather than operations in modern Britain. Over to the Guardian again:
“This is Leicester’s dirty secret,” he said. “These illegal businesses are not only keeping their workers in miserable conditions, they’re also undermining the marketplace for legitimate businesses to make a living in a very difficult market. I’ve seen the buildings where these workers are and it is shocking: the buildings are condemned – if there was a fire there then hundreds would die, and this is Britain in 2020. It’s a national shame.”
Persistent investigations into the UK’s domestic garment industry has raised the spectre of serious labour abuses thriving in factories across the north west of England with relative impunity.
Last February, an Environmental Audit Committee heard evidence of environmental and labour abuses flourishing in the UK’s fashion industry. MPs found that the Modern Slavery Act was not sufficient to stop wage exploitation at UK clothing factories and issued a series of recommendations, including forcing brands to increase transparency in their supply chains. However the government refused to implement any of the committee’s recommendations, which also included moves to improve environmental sustainability and limit waste.
n November 2019, a scoping survey on the Greater Manchester textile and garment industry that included 182 companies operating across the region, also found evidence that workers were being paid as little as £3-4 an hour.
The main problem here of course is the pressure to produce cheap, disposable fashion. I have discussed the environmental consequences of that pressure (see Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along and The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion).
But the same pressure also contributes to the industry’s labour practices. Over to the Guardian again:
The survey also highlighted concerns from small manufacturers that they were under increasing pressure from large retailers whose purchasing practices were driving down prices to levels at which it was impossible for them to pay their workers properly. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
What Is to Be Done?
Well for starters, the UK must enforce its minimum wage laws. Bridgen’s action is shining the spotlight on the fast fashion industry.
Yet as we’re well aware, government appetite for enforcement of laws that protect workers is not as strong as it should be.
And the reaction of the government minister quoted by the Guardian suggests this is not a priority for the Tory government:
In the Commons yesterday, business minister Kelly Tolhurst agreed a meeting to discuss conditions in Leicester but said, “This is a particular sector that has been under focus; there has been much work that has been carried out by HMRC and cross-border agencies – HMRC enforce the national living wage.”
So, in such an environment, what can one do?
Well, something we as consumers can do is not to purchase fast fashion. The goods tend to be shoddy, they have a huge environmental footprint, and the industry’s labor practices do not bear close scrutiny.
Readers might well say, well, that’s all very well and good, but fast fashion is ubiquitous, whereas well-made, long-lasting goods are either unavailable or only available at a cost that many cannot afford to pay.
I don’t want to end on a gloomy note. The Evening Standard featured an auricle on the rise of businesses in England that are exploiting what was previously known as fashion waste – to create new, usable fashion,
As just one example:
‘I’m actually saving jeans from landfill as we speak,’ the fashions tylist Anna Foster half shouts down the phone to me from a warehouse in north London.
Foster is the founder of the upcycling label ELV Denim and is on a regular sourcing trip to buy some 200 pairs of otherwise unwanted jeans, which she will then wash, splice together and sell in her shop on Shacklewell Lane or on Net-A-Porter. ‘I am sourcing pairs I think I can make something out of. Rather than create a design and find material to go with it, everything starts at somebody else’s waste.’
Welcome to the trending world of ‘trashion’, where one man’s rubbish becomes another man’s pair of designer jeans. Fuelled by the environmental impact of the fashion industry’s issues with chemical use, carbon emissions, overproduction and waste, ELV Denim is one of a charge of young activist labels embracing upcycling as a business model on a mission to make the fashion industry less wasteful and more woke. Foster calls her company ‘zero-waste’; even her leather labels are cast-offs from a London belt manufacturer.
Now, many of these operations are relatively small-scale and their products may not be widely available. But what the Standard documents is the increase in fast fashion alternatives specifically targeted to reducing fashion waste. I’ve only included one of many examples discussed in the short article;; for those with an interest, read the complete piece in full.
Another cause for modest optimism: as the Standard reports, some of these operations are beginning to have a wider impact:
What’s more, these small brands with careful and slow supply chains are beginning to turn the heads of the big-gun retailers, too. This month Net-A-Porter has launched 45 more sustainable brands, including the upcycling labels The R Collective and Aaizél. ‘The want and need for sustainability within the luxury retail sphere is becoming more and more apparent from the way our customers are shopping,’ says buying director, Elizabeth von der Goltz. ‘More brands are definitely focusing on zero waste more by using off-cuts to create products and building business models around using surplus materials they have sourced.’
As far as the industry’s attitude towards waste is concerned, this change in perspective comes not a moment too soon.