Updated: Apr 28
It is without a doubt that this year has been, not to sound like every other media outlet, company and public figure… unprecedented. The impacts of COVID-19 have reached far and wide. The fashion industry in particular has faced major crisis, with its global unethical practices being brought to the forefront of our societal conscious.
As lockdowns all over the world were announced like dominoes, and high street fast fashion shops closed, many fashion brands refused to pay their suppliers for the orders they’d placed, many of which had already been fully or partially completed. From there, the #PayUp campaign was born. After Remake launched this campaign, social media was flooded with the hashtag, and their first petition had over 270,000 signatures. In six months, the #PayUp campaign had unlocked $22 billion from brands for their suppliers, meaning that millions of garment workers (80% of whom are women) and their dependents were able to survive.
Many brands, including Urban Outfitters, FashionNova and Topshop, still have not paid up, more than ten months on. It is not just consumers taking action however, there have been many protests organized by garment workers across the globe in reaction to the withholding of their wages, unfair terminations and union-busting, although these strikes have not been prominently featured on mainstream news outlets.
Another scandal unfurled in June when Labour Behind the Label published their report highlighting ethical issues within garment factories in Leicester during the UK’s first lockdown. This report came days after the announcement that Leicester was to become the first city in the UK to go into local lockdown, and many people drew links between the two events. This seemed to draw more attention in British audiences than previous workers’ rights scandals occurring elsewhere in the world, perhaps as it goes against the thought that the UK is somehow ‘better’ in terms of upholding labour and human rights. The fact that these rights abuses were taking place smack bang in the middle of the UK seemed to bring home the prevalence of the issue to many, and it was encouraging to see people sharing their outrage at the brands responsible.
With so many high profile events and news stories occurring simultaneously, my initial thoughts on seeing more people talking about issues within the fashion industry was hope, which gradually became more tentative as time went on. There was almost a sense of victory that these issues were being more widely discussed, but as with many issues that get brought up on social media, they could just be remembered as trends.
This has happened before when there have been swells of public awareness which have subsequently died down and quickly forgotten. 2021 has the potential to be a moment of change in the fashion industry, as long as the outrage caused by these events does not become another social media trend. There is a pattern in the past couple of decades of serious human rights violations occurring within the fashion industry, a complete uproar being made at the time, and yet things carry on in the same manner until there’s another scandal revealed and the cycle goes on. The Rana Plaza disaster occurred nearly 8 years ago and there are still serious safety incidents taking place in garment factories. Boohoo were revealed to be using modern slavery in their Leicester part of their supply chain in 2017, along with Missguided and other brands – only to be called out again in 2020. This cycle cannot continue.
Brands won’t change their practices on their own, but ultimately they’re the only ones with the true power and if they have a system that benefits them, they will work to preserve that system even if it’s at the expense of others. In order for them to change, they need to feel like they are in danger of losing their customer base, or at least a significant proportion of it. That’s why we as citizens need to let them know that we want our clothes to be made in a manner that looks after both workers and the environment. Even if you can’t stop your consumption of fast fashion, you can still use your voice to hold brands to account.
For the events of 2020 to have a lasting positive impact on the fashion industry, brands need to be held accountable and global solidarity from all areas of the supply chain needs to happen to transform the entire system. Above all, the rights and welfare of garment workers must be kept at the forefront of all discussions about making the fashion industry more ethical and sustainable. 2020 may have been horrendous, but we can use that as motivation for action in 2021.
Find Jemima Elliott at anotherrantingreader.co.uk