Lost Stock is a band-aid solution

How a charitable initiative went so wrong.

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For many, the cancelled orders crisis has opened their eyes to the exploitation at the heart of the fashion industry. Millions of global garment workers are without pay, as well-known fashion retailers refuse to pay supplier factories for already processed or completed apparel orders. In Bangladesh alone, 1,150 factories have reported cancellations of 982 million units of work orders worth over $3.18 billion. And when the Bangladeshi garment sector accounts for around 80% of national export income, the fallout has been catastrophic.

While Remake’s #PayUp campaign has garnered over 270,000 signatures of support - prompting 19 brands to pay back orders totalling upwards of $600 million - countless more are still refusing to honour their contractual payments. Just two days ago, Balmain and Moschino were added to the petition following a lack of evidence that they had paid the garment workers in their supply chain during the pandemic. Clearly, we still have a long way to go.

Enter Lost Stock, an innovative response which enables shoppers to buy cancelled clothing stock direct from manufacturers. Lost Stock was envisioned as a dual solution: to combat textile waste by re-homing cancelled stock that might have otherwise be destined for landfill and to monetarily support affected garment workers. For every bag sold, a family in Bangladesh is fed for one week and it is estimated that over 114,000 families have been helped thus far.

But when you start to dig deeper, this temporary solution is exactly that: a well-intentioned plaster precariously covering a huge gaping wound. Lost Stock was created by the team at Mallzee, a free shopping app that was once described as the 'Tinder of fashion'. The aggregator platform currently hosts over 180 retailers, many of which are fast fashion brands. So, while Lost Stock is positioned as the solution to the cancelled orders crisis, Mallzee promotes the brands that directly created it. In fact, the Mallzee app currently features Topshop, a multinational retailer whose parent company, Arcadia Group, is yet to pay up.

I reached out to Lost Stock in early June and questioned whether this was at all hypocritical. While they were generally happy to answer my queries, they avoided meaningfully engaging with this concern. Instead, they told me about how Mallzee was created with the intent of reducing waste through customer data. Disappointed with this response, I again pressed for an answer: "I understand how, through Lost Stock, Mallzee is part of the solution but can you also understand how Mallzee, as a platform for fast fashion, is also part of the problem?" To this they replied that Mallzee has promoted sustainable collections throughout the last 12 months and ran its own tree planting campaign. To my knowledge, they are yet to publicly admit to this conflict of interest.

The PR-favourable headlines were as disappointingly shallow. In an alarming trend, the press promoted the scheme as a knight in shining armour, without critically examining what prompted the need for Lost Stock in the first place. One particular Telegraph article remarked that Lost Stock "is promising a way for us to finally feel good about fast fashion by directly saving the livelihoods of factory workers with our purchase”. Needless to say the words “good” and “fast fashion” don’t belong in the same sentence, especially when this very business model led to the present crisis.

Another article framed Lost Stock as a present to your future self. Once again, humanitarian assistance falls on the consumer, while billionaires refuse to support their own employees and demand government bailouts. Every time you purchase a bag, you receive email confirmation hailing you as a “hero”. By placing so much emphasis on the consumer, the conversation is shifting away from the brands responsible. It also misrepresents the crisis as one born solely out of the pandemic, and not one where pre-existing structural inequalities were heightened during a global health crisis and economic recession. Sadly, a one-off, feel-good purchase isn’t going to solve the wider issues that have plagued the fashion industry for decades. Multimillionaire fashion retailers are ultimately to blame and it is them who should shoulder the relief effort.

While I was sceptical enough not to buy my own bag, I was still optimistic about the overall premise. Then the parcels slowly started to arrive. The reactions were fairly mixed, though a considerable number of people have voiced their disappointment online. As a lucky-dip-of-sorts, there was always the possibility of unhappy customers, especially when their parcels didn’t match their style preferences.

Others questioned the bag’s value for money. For just £35, shoppers were promised a personalised fashion bag containing £70 worth of clothing. One Lost Stock customer, Gemma, reviewed her order which contained a flimsy, see-through singlet, two tops and a slip dress. After some research, Gemma found all of these garments live on the Matalan website, totalling £33.50. Charitable donation aside, it would have been cheaper to pay for the items directly from Matalan than buy a mystery bag. Lost Stock have since removed the RRP promise from their website and clarified that “the RRP was based on the original RRP of cancelled goods as originally agreed by the brands and provided to us by our factory partners”. Some remain dubious, arguing a package of low-quality Matalan vest tops would never have a combined retail value of £70.

To make matters worse, Lost Stock have allegedly censored disgruntled customers by blocking them on social media or deleting their less than favourable comments. They have also removed the review section from their Facebook Page, prompting accusations that they’re skewing public information and incentivising future purchases on misleading premises. In response, a Facebook group - Lost Stock - we’ve lost faith in you … - was set up for customers to freely vent their concerns. Meanwhile, Lost Stock’s Trustpilot score is dismally low, with 84% of contributors leaving one star reviews. A significant amount of customers are now demanding a refund.

The refund process isn’t exactly straight forward. Customers can either opt for a partial refund whereby the charitable donation is deducted or for a full refund minus the return shipping fees, though they are discouraged from doing either. Lost Stock’s return policy could be mistaken for a guilt-trip, urging customers “to break our returns habit and consider the environment and sustainability of our purchases.” Meanwhile, a packaging slip reads “we accept returns, but this severely impacts the number of families we and our partners are able to support, and it’s not great for the environment either.”

Despite criticisms, Lost Stock have always been fairly transparent about how their customers' money will be spent. When transaction, transportation, postage and staff costs are deducted, 30% goes directly to the manufacturers for the product cost to pay workers. Lost Stock have also partnered with Bangladesh NGO SAJIDA Foundation which is committed to helping those affected by the pandemic. 37%, therefore, goes directly to the NGO partner who is supporting workers through food and hygiene packages, distributing PPE kits and installing portable hand washing devices throughout the country. Though some customers remain unconvinced, demanding proof or regular updates on how much has been donated and how these donations have been spent.

The Lost Stock fiasco is a telling lesson on the murky mix of business and charity. As they were explicitly set up as a business, Lost Stock must abide by Trading Standards, while customers have every right to question less than perfect service. As one shopper put, after months of waiting, Lost Stock has frustrated the goodwill of its customers.

Customers are entitled to a refund and shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for requesting one. Many of those seeking a refund are looking to donate the money to other relief funds, but the long-winded return process will likely discourage those who feel burdened by unwelcomed clothes. Though Lost Stock have encouraged customers to alternatively swap, upcycle or donate their unwanted orders, a scheme that was setup to prevent clothes from entering landfill might ironically see more garments dumped in the bin.

Remake have also been critical of the scheme, arguing that “Lost Stock’s product isn’t lost - it’s salvaged from brands’ stolen labour”. Though they recognise Lost Stock’s innovative emergency approach, this doesn’t necessarily alleviate the plight of those affected, at least in the long term. Lost Stock are essentially a middleman who aren’t directly responsible for the welfare of garment workers. Struggling suppliers, therefore, would have had no choice but to sell their items at a loss, suggesting that workers will still be underpaid for their labour. When questioned if they would continue to support garment workers after the pandemic, Lost Stock informed me that “as long as there is demand and stock available we aim to continue with Lost Stock and we hope to play our part in evolving and improving the supply chain long after the pandemic is over".

Such promises, however, will always fall short as long as those responsible aren’t held accountable for the crisis. For many, the decision to cut out the original garment labels was akin to letting brands off the hook. Lost Stock have defended this decision on legal grounds, stating that they “can’t specify which brands these products were originally destined for as (a) it’s illegal for us to promote and sell garments with another brand labelling in the UK, (b) the factories we are buying from have agreements in place with the retailers to de-label all items before passing them onto us and (c) longer-term factories need to maintain and build their relationships with retailers as they will most likely be working with them again in the future”.

There are no legal obligations, however, underpinning Lost Stock’s refusal to name and shame. This isn’t all that surprising; it would prove a poor marketing move for Mallzee to criticise brands they have partnered with. Though the profit margins are small, Mallzee have capitalised on a crisis and will, no doubt, benefit from the publicity. Who knows, maybe they would have gained more capital or praise had they used their commercial leverage to force those responsible to pay up. Lost Stock certainly captured the somewhat unprecedented attention and generosity of the average shopper but they have failed to educate them or inspire collective action. Sadly, there is no quick fix to this humanitarian crisis and a cheap bag of clothes isn’t going to change that.

In other news…

#IWantToSeeNyome. Instagram has repeatedly come under fire for censoring Black plus-sized women. The platforms racial bias was recently evidenced by the widespread removal of this beautiful image of plus-sized model, Nyome Nicholas-Williams, as photographed by Alexandra Cameron. The image allegedly violated Instagram’s nudity guidelines, despite thinner, “more socially acceptable” white models being able to freely post in a similar state of undress. In response, activist Gina Martin started #IWantToSeeNyome, while Instagram was flooded with Nyome’s portrait and over 10,000 people signed this petition. The movement quickly grabbed Instagram’s attention who have since started to review its semi-nudity policy, though the issue is far from over.

That Inside Missguided doc was, well, pretty misguided. Despite its promising title, viewers were offered a very limited glimpse inside Missguided’s supply chain in a PR-friendly documentary that is riddled with fatphobia, faux empowerment and white feminism. After binge-watching the show, I wrote this scathing review for Fashion Roundtable, mirroring the views of Sophie Benson, Lucy Siegle and Emily Baker. Add to that the chorus of Twitter users who caused quite an uproar live tweeting their reactions and a petition asking Channel 4 to stop glamourising fast fashion. The backlash may have triggered Missguided’s recent - and welcomed - decision to sign the Transparency Pledge. To risk sounding like a broken record, transparency is a crucial first step but it’s not a guarantee of ethical or sustainable practice. Though I do hope the news prompts Missguided’s rivals to follow suit.

Selfridges has launched Project Earth, a highly publicised retail initiative which will see the store move towards sustainability and circularity by 2025. While it’s brilliant that such a recognisable department store has very publicly pledged to reinvent retail (and can, in some ways, be later held accountable if it fails to fulfil such promises), everything is not what it seems (pun intended). When you follow the money, that gigantic yellow ‘Let’s Change The Way We Shop’ sign which graces the exterior of its flagship store might be better tinged green. Selfridges’ main investor, Wittington Investments, owns 54.5% of Associated British Foods, the parent company of Primark i.e. a fast fashion retailer which, by definition, can never be sustainable. As part of the scheme, Selfridges partnered with rental service, Hurr, who also have a questionable stakeholder: Tom Singh (the founder of infamous New Look) who recently invested in the brand. While I worry that this initiative will line the pockets of those who couldn’t care less about the planet, Project Earth could incentivise industry-wide change. When Stella McCartney launched her own fashion label in 2001, she was ridiculed for giving Gucci Group a 50% stake. After successfully showcasing the luxuriance and profitability of vegetarian fashion, it may be no surprise that Gucci, Versace and Burberry have since become entirely fur-free. Time will tell if Selfridges will have the same monumental impact on the high street.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural (mis)appropriation is the selection of knowledge, practices and symbols from an outside, often minority, culture which is then removed from the original, perhaps sacred, context. Central to this is an unbalanced power dynamic in which members of the dominant culture appropriate another community’s cultural dress without respecting or uplifting that community. This makes Marc Jacob’s defence of styling white models in dreadlocks in 2016 - "Funny how you don't criticise women of colour for straightening their hair" - redundant because white women have never been oppressed for their natural hairstyle. So, while Black people might be stereotyped, ridiculed or policed for their cultural dress, the same fashion item might be seen as socially acceptable or fashionable when worn by a white person. This serves as another reminder that anti-racism work and fashion justice are intrinsically linked.

The fashion industry is no stranger to cultural appropriation. In fact, Forbes recognised the phenomenon as one of the biggest issues facing fashion in 2019. Fashion labels often recycle trends and borrow patterns, methods and designs from local artisans and craftsmen. But there is a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, especially when the design process takes place without awareness of the cultural context or significance, without due credit or financial reimbursement and without involving representatives of the culture in the decision making process.

There are too many examples of cultural appropriation to include here, but Vogue photographing Kendall Jenner in what looked like an afro, Gucci selling a blackface jumper, Commes Des Garçons using cornrow wigs on white models in 2020 and Dolce & Gabbana trivialising Chinese culture in a 2018 campaign all come to mind. For more up-to-date examples, I recommend following Diet Prada which regularly exposes copycats in the industry.

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