Un-happy Black Friday!

Some thoughts on my least favourite day of the year.

Hello stranger, long time no see! 3 weeks to be precise but who’s counting?! Lockdown life, daylight saving hours and uni deadlines were getting to me so I took a small mental breather. Butttt Not What It Seams is now back to its usual fortnightly schedule and its usual anti-greenwashing self. If you enjoy 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! 💌

It’s Black Friday but it’s no cause for celebration, unless you’re a fashion billionaire CEO of course.

Despite its name, Black Friday is more of a weeklong affair. The countdown starts a month in advance and the sales seem to get earlier each year. Anticipation is ramped up through targeted ads, email campaigns and trending hashtags (in the last 24 hours #PLTMidnightDrop has been tweeted thousands of times alone).

For many brands who have faced an unprecedented year of economic uncertainty, Black Friday is a symbol of recovery and hope. As Clara Buckens explains, “the retail sector is facing record lows. Clothing sale volumes were down 12.7% in September compared to February. Now, with England’s second national lockdown, this is likely to get worse.”

But if the projections are anything to go by, Brits are prepared to spend a pretty penny to save their favourite stores. According to Finder, participating shoppers in the UK are planning to spend £295.67 on average, an 18% increase from last year. Of the £6 billion generated in Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales in 2020, 29% of shoppers are expected to spend the most on clothing and shoes. The vast majority of these sales will be made online, which means huge fashion e-tailers, like Asos and Boohoo, will make a handsome profit from the festivities.

Taking a firm stand against disposability and exploitation, Fashion Revolution are running a counter-campaign which urges citizens to say no to the Black Friday sales and mindless consumerism. This sale season is hugely problematic, not least because it encourages overconsumption, impulsive purchases and excessive waste. It too upholds the fast fashion model of disposability which sees brands compete to produce the most amount of product in the least amount of time for the lowest price tag. In this race to the bottom, profit margins are squeezed from cheap, exploitative labour. That 10p crop top (yes seriously!) might seem like the bargain of the century but it comes at the cost of a garment worker’s livelihood and safety.

For the most part, Black Friday also convinces us to buy stuff we don’t really need. With flashing sale signs at the ready, brands feed into our fashion FOMO with the added reminder that these sales are for a limited time only while stock lasts. They also tend to overinflate the discount by hiking up costs beforehand to make the money off seem greater than it is. This all serves to skew our perception of value. The hill I’m prepared to die on is that sustainable fashion isn’t necessarily expensive; fast fashion is ridiculously dirt cheap. Fast fashion has distorted the true value of clothes, the time and effort that’s stitched into each fabric. It’s also got us consuming more clothes than we ever have before, with many discarded after just a few wears.

And with Pretty Little Thing selling thousands of garments for up to 99% off, you can now cop a top for as little as 4p. Four fucking pence. It’s prices like these that put independent artisans out of business, that undermine the craft and skill behind every piece. It’s prices like these that scream sweatshop labour. These same garments are likely planned obsolescence - purposefully designed, poorly made clothes that will quickly wear out. So, it might be cheaper for PLT to sell a 35p dress than dispose of it, but it’ll likely end up in landfill anyway.

Which brings me onto the excessive waste that will inevitably be generated by the Black Friday frenzy. It is estimated that online fashion purchases have a return rate of up to 40%, many of which will not return to the virtual shop floor but instead be binned. What’s more, in 2018 21% of Brits purchased something on Black Friday or Cyber Monday that they later regretted. Buyer’s regret is a very tangible risk but it’s the planet that has to pay.

Small businesses also pay as they are undercut by huge corporate retailers. Black Friday is the gift that keeps on giving, that is if you’re the CEO of a fashion brand who refuses to pay supplier factories for already processed orders but will nevertheless rake in millions in sales. Arcadia Group “obviously” can’t afford to pay their garment workers’ wages but can somehow reduce a bandeau on Topshop’s website to £3. If Fashion Nova can sell a $1.98 bodysuit for profit, how little were the workers in their supply chain paid?! That’s if they were paid at all. Fashion Nova, like Arcadia, mass cancelled orders to save their bottom line.

To be sure, I’m not shaming those on a low income who can only access items at sale price. Nor am I shaming those that use these sales to buy something they truly love or need. My boyfriend has been patiently saving to invest in a camera for his work (in a cruel twist of fate, the camera increased in price today). And to be even more sure, there are so many amazing brands that are worth supporting this Black Friday, discounted goods or not. You can shop for discounted secondhand garms at Depop and Oxfam while One Scoop Store is donating 10% of Black Friday sales to FareShare. In opposition to Black Friday, Sancho’s is celebrating ‘pay what you can’ Friday while Birdsong is letting customers choose their own discount.

So, no I don’t hate those buying into Black Friday but I do hate the hypercapitalist celebration of overconsumption, labour exploitation and waste. I hate that it takes a fashion CEO 4 days to earn what a garment worker would make in their lifetime. And I hate that, while garment workers are starving and without pay, fashion brands who refuse to honour contractual payments will only get richer.

So, un-happy Black Friday! May you be merrily supportive of small businesses and festively unburdened with unnecessary hauls x

In other news…

Labour Behind the Label are petitioning Primark to pay its workers. Through the rallying efforts of the #PayUp campaign, Primark agreed to honour its contractual payments for cancelled orders - but garment workers in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia in Primark’s supply chain may not have received their wages. Labour Behind the Label are calling on Primark to share transparent updates on their Wage Fund and to publish an assurance commitment on their website. You can learn more and sign the petition here.

Harry Styles made history as the first solo male to be featured on the cover of Vogue. He was pictured in a stunning array of dresses, one of which was designed by gender fluid designer Harris Reed. Though, as ALOK eloquently reminds us, “trans femmes of color started this and continue to face the backlash from it. Our aesthetics make it to the mainstream, but not our bodies. We are still dismissed as “too much” and “too queer” because we aren’t palatable enough to whiteness and heteronormativity.” Representation matters in the world of degendered fashion, but “what is manifest in a magazine does not necessarily materialize on a moving train”.

Joe Biden officially won the US presidential race, but is fashion always political? The short answer: yes, fashion is inherently political and what a politician wears can be even more so. This month, a beauty feature on Vice President Kamala Harris became the centre of a feminist debate which many found misogynistic and reductive. But, as Sophie Benson argues, clothing, beauty, and politics have long been interlinked. Another recent example is when, in a Twitter exchange with representative-elect Cori Bush, AOC recommended thrifting, renting and capsule wardrobes as sustainable fashion alternatives. Not only does this shine a mainstream light on these issues, but it helps dismantle the stigma around secondhand shopping. And that’s a political win!

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

  • Earlier this month, leading brands and retailers gave evidence to MPs on the extent to which UK businesses are exploiting the forced labour of Uyghur Muslim prisoners in the Xinjiang region of China. Boohoo, H&M and Nike denied all allegations.

  • Indian factory workers supplying Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Ralph Lauren allege routine exploitation.

  • UK factories could be making up to £4.8bn more goods for British retailers in the next 12 months as the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit prompt businesses to bring home production.

  • Liz Kendall, the MP for Leicester West, is calling on Boohoo’s executive chairman Mahmud Kamani and chief executive John Lyttle to step down, arguing that the Boohoo factory saga was “one of the worst environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) scandals in modern UK history”.

  • Is H&M’s green machine really just greenwashing? Jasmin Malik Chua finds out.

  • I loved this episode of Sustainably Influenced with Birdsong co-founder and sustainable fashion trailblazer, Sophie Slater.

  • Speaking of podcasts, I’d also recommend the latest episode of Wardrobe Crisis with the sustainable fashion queen, Aja Barber, herself.

  • WRAP has announced a new circularity initiative with plans to drastically reduce fashion’s environmental footprint.

  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest report on plastic elimination shows fashion’s progress is slow, with the vast majority of plastic packaging ending up in landfill or the ocean, Rachel Cernansky reports.

  • “By neglecting the importance of women workers in the Global South as central to systemic change, we risk sustaining a movement focused on the ideals of Northern activists, that in turn fails to address the fundamental solutions needed to effectively challenge exploitation” - Mayisha Begum on why we can’t forget the female garment workers leading the fair fashion movement.

  • I was really excited to see the BBC debut a documentary on the cancelled orders crisis in Bangladesh. It’s a harrowing watch, but one that exposes the truth behind our clothes to a mainstream audience.

  • Sustainable fashion? There’s no such thing (paywall).

  • Remake, the founders of the #PayUp campaign, have launched a brand directory which scores brands based on their environmental and social performance. They also published their inaugural Transparency Report which delves deeper into the methodology behind their brand rankings.

  • Prince Charles has had a royal blunder with his new ‘sustainable’ fashion range which PETA has criticised for its use of non-vegan materials. Each garment will cost you a small royal fortune, though I’m not convinced we’re in need of any more clothing ranges.

  • A fascinating deep dive into the world of blackfishing.

  • A model made the headlines when her £18 black Missguided jumpsuit stained the seats of her £60k Porsche - which is a fitting reminder that it’s intellectually dishonest to argue that fast fashion is made profitable by the working classes. It’s those with money that keep the cogs turning.

  • Inspired by Elizabeth Cline’s honest op-ed on ethical consumerism, Fashion Revolution are calling for more consumer activists over ethical consumers. This post visually distinguishes between the two, though I think it’s important to note that they aren’t mutually exclusive and we need a healthy balance of both!

What is the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) Watchdog?

Without robust regulations, it becomes near impossible to hold offending fashion brands to account. There is little incentive for brands to curb their environmental footprint or invest in sustainable initiatives; there’s no legal imperative to eradicate labour exploitation; and, when sustainability sells, there’s no reason not to greenwash the shit out of your “eco-friendly” clothing range.

Until now. The UK’s competition watchdog has launched an investigation to determine whether textiles, transport, food and beauty brands are misleading customers on their sustainability credentials and breaching consumer protection and trading laws. This CMA’s investigation comes after years of lobbying for government intervention and was set up to aid the government’s commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The watchdog is collaborating with the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network — a global network of consumer protection authorities from over 65 countries — so it’s possible that their findings could influence wider international action.

I’m personally really excited by the news! Greenwashing has long been hard to track and spot, so a dedicated investigation should get the ball rolling. What we need next is a dedicated body or advertising standards department to keep tabs on fashion brands and concrete modern legislation through which to prosecute the offenders. Hopefully we’re one step closer to making this a reality.

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