It's not just Boohoo

The problem is industry-wide.

Out of sight, out of mind - that’s how I’d describe an industry that has sprawling, untraceable supply chains. Even if we’re subconsciously aware that (fast) fashion thrives on exploitative labour, we don’t tend to connect that with what we wear. And if you do, you’d be forgiven for thinking that garment production - and exploitation - is centralised in previously colonised countries.

While garment manufacturing has largely been outsourced to countries with lax labour laws, the UK is no stranger to modern slavery. Labour Behind the Label’s recent report on the illegal working conditions and inadequate social distancing measures in Leicester garment factories sadly confirms this. The sweatshop factories were found to be supplying Boohoo Group LTD, a rapidly growing online retailer whose profits have soared during the pandemic.

To make things worse, an undercover reporter for The Times found that an East Midlands factory producing for Boohoo and Nasty Gal lacked sufficient protective equipment. Its headline featured a devastating quote from an employee: ‘they only exploit us. They make huge profits and pay us peanuts’. Here, garment workers were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour. So much for Boohoo’s ‘zero tolerance’ for modern slavery.

The response was international outcry. News coverage spanned the globe as the National Crime Agency confirmed it was investigating Leicester's textiles industry. Meanwhile, Next, Asos, Zalando and Amazon dropped the retailer from their website. All eyes were suddenly on Boohoo, as if they were the only brand to have exploitation rotting at its core.

Boohoo eventually released an official statement claiming to be ‘shocked’ by the ‘allegations’ made. Following an independent review of its UK suppliers, Boohoo had not found any evidence of workers being paid £3.50 per hour (though they didn’t confirm that workers at least earned minimum wage). Boohoo had, however, observed unspecified instances of non-compliance which reads as a vague acknowledgement of unacceptable working conditions in their supply chain. Boohoo also declared its commitment to dropping any supplier who doesn’t comply, which will merely sweep the issue further under the carpet.

What stood out to me the most was Boohoo’s expression of shock. Were they shocked at being caught out or at seeing a 20% reduction in their shares? See, they can’t pretend to be shocked about their sweatshop suppliers, when their co-founder has been linked to one of the offending factories. Nor should they be shocked about failures to follow social distancing measures, when it was revealed in May that Boohoo themselves were flouting the rules to shoot new products. An admission of shock may instead hint at Boohoo’s inability to trace who is producing its clothes.

What’s more shocking is that Leicester’s so-called dark factories have been known about for years. There have been numerous high-profile reports since at least 2015, which make Matt Hancock’s comments about Leicester falling ‘under the radar’ rather insulting. After all, it was a Conservative government that rejected every single recommendation in the Fixing Fashion report - a report which referenced Leicester’s ‘open secret’.

And then there’s the retailers who dropped Boohoo out of fear of associated guilt. Lauren Bravo captured my thoughts perfectly when she wrote it’s ‘like dobbing in your naughtiest friend to save yourself from detention, the pointed fingers smack of defensiveness and deflection’. In March, Asos came under fire for breaking government guidelines in its warehouses (one of which was described as a ‘cradle of disease’). Clearly, they’re not as guilt-free as they’d like you to think.

What I’m getting at is it’s not just Boohoo or Leicester or fast fashion. Exploitation, poverty wages, unsafe working conditions, child labour and modern slavery are global, industry-wide issues. Just last month, garment manufacturer LA Apparel was forced to shut down after 300 workers had tested positive for Covid-19. The cruel irony was that they were making face masks. The Boohoo scandal similarly mirrors Fashion Nova’s, when it was revealed late last year that garment workers in its LA supplier factories were earning as little as $2.77 an hour. Neither incident seemed to attract nearly as much uproar.

How many exposés will it take for governments and brands to finally take action? And why do we only care now?! Is it because it’s on our doorstep, it poses an immediate health crisis or because it contradicts our western values of liberty and economic prosperity? Can we reserve the same energy and outrage for the garment workers exploited beyond our shores? Or are we doomed to forget, as the next inevitable factory disaster hits the headlines?

The Boohoo scandal might have brought the issue closer to home, but it’s probably not the wake up call the fashion industry so desperately needs.

In other news…

Brands still need to #PayUp! Gap Inc. and Levi’s are the latest retailers to agree to pay up for already processed orders, though Levi’s is sticking with its delayed payment timelines. What this shows is that consumer pressure really works - but it’s not over yet! Here are 7 ways you can help affected garment workers, a list of petitions, email templates and fundraisers, and an excellent overview of the cancelled orders crisis.

Is classism out of fashion? Before news of the Boohoo scandal broke, conversations around consumer responsibility had already centred on classist responses to shoppers queuing outside of Primark. Fashion Roundtable hosted a really eye-opening webinar on this topic, which is available to view here. I would also recommend reading this piece on the exploitation and fetishisation of the working class in British fashion, and this fascinating piece on why racism and classism are finally out of style.

Is sustainable fashion accessible? Not quite. Until sustainable fashion is affordable and size-inclusive, we cannot blame individuals for buying fast fashion out of necessity. What’s more is that we should move beyond the consumer narrative (you can’t consume your way to sustainability), and demand government action and brand accountability as citizens instead. Read these sustainability tips if you feel outpriced of the movement, this first-person essay on the exclusive mutalisation of ‘sustainability’ and ‘inclusive’, and this compelling piece on why ‘solving’ fast fashion isn’t a plus-size responsibility.

My favourite greenwashers are back at it again (and fashion media isn’t helping). Yep, you guessed it, H&M are back with their latest greenwashing antics. This time, they’ve released a collection of sustainable summer dresses, which aren’t that sustainable or ethical. But how are shoppers to know when it’s paraded around by pretty influencers and promoted on Grazia’s Insta feed?! Fashion media is very much complicit in greenwashing, promoting endless trends (post-lockdown fashion ‘staples’, anyone?), and feeding overconsumption. Until they dramatically scale back production and pay their garment workers a living wage, H&M certainly shouldn’t be praised for producing recycled clothing.

Speaking of greenwashing, Gucci has been making the headlines: Emma Watson joined the board of Kering, Gucci pledged to go seasonessness and have since announced plans for a circular future with its Off The Grid capsule collection. The problem? There has been little transparency around volume and measuring progress.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

What is modern slavery?

According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 40.3 million people are subject to modern slavery around the world. Modern slavery can take many forms but, in the fashion industry, it is understood as the exploitation of formally or informally employed workers for commercial gain. While the exact figures are unknown, modern slavery can be found across the entire fashion supply chain.

As a by-product of poverty, modern slavery is often found in countries with few legal safeguards and poverty wages. Garment workers trapped in poverty are especially vulnerable to exploitation and are often forced to labour for low pay out of necessity. Many lack the ability to control their employment conditions or unionise. An estimated 90% of global garment workers are unable to negotiate their wages, while around 98% do not make a living wage.

Modern slavery can take more overt forms, including the use of violence and intimidation. Every year in Uzbekistan, for example, around 170,000 adults are forced by the government to pick cotton. Debt bondage is similarly rife, especially among cotton farmers who are unable to access formal financial support for crop failures or startup costs. Instead, they depend on high-interest loans from rogue money lenders. Children are often forced into work in order to help pay off family debts or provide additional income for basic essentials.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running!

If this email was forwarded to you or you’re seeing it on the web, then hi! Not What It Seams was created with the average shopper in mind, to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability, If that sounds like your thing, you can sign up below and receive fortnightly posts straight to your inbox.