Updated: Aug 14, 2020
When you think of shopping for clothes, the first thing that comes to mind is that scene from the 2009 romcom, Confessions of a Shopaholic; the one where Rebecca Bloomwood is attracted to a chic green scarf so much so that she imagines the mannequin seducing her to purchase it. But those were the ‘old days’, before the pandemic, where one could shop conveniently at a store like Rebecca.
During the initial stage of the outbreak, governments of various countries were implementing restrictions on their citizens to prevent the virus from spreading. For some of us, these restrictions were a sigh of relief, but for the fast-fashion industry, it was nothing but a nightmare. The more the restrictions, the lesser the demand for their products. This led to popular fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Inditex, Primark and more to shut their stores around the world. H&M at the time of writing has closed down 3,441 of its stores.
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Though online shopping is an option, an average person’s priorities during the pandemic are more focused on food and other household goods. This has made fast-fashion retailers face something that is not normal for them - idle inventory. The formula for fast fashion is quite simple, pick up a trend, mass-produce clothes at a low cost and then sell those products at a very low price. Not only low prices but also the marketing that is done to promote these throwaway products attract many consumers which help these companies stay afloat. But due to the current low demand, companies have loads of inventory which aren’t being purchased. This has resulted in many companies cancelling orders from their suppliers. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. and European buyers have cancelled orders from Bangladesh worth $1.5 billion. Some of these orders included products which suppliers had already manufactured or purchased material for.While some companies like H&M and Zara are promising to pay their supply chain garment workers, other’s are ignoring their needs.
It is no secret that big retail brands have been avoiding the sharp criticism they get for the kind of treatment their garment workers have to go through. The global supply chain itself was made to limit the obligations of the retailer. According to Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the pandemic has been ‘the curse of the century’. But this kind of treatment is not new, moreover, it has been going on for decades. One such incident that reflects this behaviour is the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, which. resulted in more 1,100 deaths of garment workers.
We need to question why these European based companies partner with faraway suppliers in the first place. The answer is easy - to exploit cheap labour available in most South Asian countries. Let us keep in mind that these companies have many factories in developing countries, where labour laws are not stringent. The minimum wage barely meets the living wage which gives these companies a way to get the cheap low-skilled labour they desire. Women in these countries have been oppressed and face a great amount of discrimination. They are considered weak and expected to do only domestic work. These women then resort to these factories for work as they do not receive the same opportunities as men and, have no other way to earn money for their family.
Picture courtesy: Rin Carin
According to Labour Behind the Label, approximately 80% of the garment workers around the world are women. While some journalists like Jessie T. Chang argue that working at these garment factories gives women of the East a sense of empowerment, it is important to consider the conditions under which these women work. A survey conducted by Fear Wear Foundation revealed that 75% of women in Indian and Bangladeshi garment factories agreed that verbal abuse, including the sexually explicit kind, doexist in their workspaces. In Bangladesh alone, 60% of women garment workers had either been threatened or intimidated with violence at work. Not only women but other vulnerable individuals such as children have been exploited as well. The International Labour Organization estimates that 170 million children around the globe have been put through child labour, much of
which is to fulfill the demand of the fast-paced fashion industry.
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But what can these companies do during this pandemic? With the virus shutting down stores, logistically, many companies are cancelling their orders. But what does this mean for garment workers? It means no money to sustain themselves. With suppliers not generating profit, they have no choice but to furlough many of their workers. This has left these workers in destitution as even before the virus, they did not receive enough money to maintain any savings an although these suppliers are offering them compensation packages, it is just not enough during this pandemic.
COVID has brought light onto many ethical issues with regards to the fast fashion industry. With its negative impact on the environment and it’s supply chain garment workers, many individuals. are shifting to what is known as slow fashion, a more sustainable approach. Although a shift to slow fashion is a great step, it’s also a gradual one, the problems of these workers still remain. Companies aren’t taking accountability for their actions and are blaming third parties in the supply chain. A more equitable approach should be made by companies whilst handling their losses. Workers should be paid and people should be educated. Organizations like Fashion Revolution and Labour Behind The Label are striving to make consumers aware of the people behind their products.It is also our responsibility as consumers to acknowledge these conditions and make more informed decisions about what our purchase is really contributing to.