Who wins in fashion?

Why there are more losers than victors.

Not What It Seams is a free, fortnightly newsletter that unpicks the latest in fashion and sustainability. It was created with the average shopper in mind to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability. 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! 💌

We’re not quite at the end yet but what a year 2020 has been! It’s the year that changed everything. The year the fashion industry faced its worst economic crisis in decades. The industry’s worst year on record, in fact.

2020 was the year that ousted racist fashion CEOs and saw an alarming rise in wokewashing. It was the year the cancelled orders crisis and Boohoo sweatshop scandal garnered mainstream attention and action. The year fashion went digital and consumer behaviour shifted. The year that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of garment workers around the world.

It has been a pretty horrendous year for us all, but the rich and powerful still came out victorious.

One of this year’s notorious winners was Pretty Little Thing, a brand who came out on top of the Black Friday frenzy. 8p dresses weren’t enough to deter thousands of shoppers from bagging a bargain and entering PLT’s cash giveaways - one hopeful follower tattooed the brand on her arm in a bid to win. As Moya Lothian McLean writes, “Pretty Little Thing weighed up the cost of reputational damage and found it was nothing compared to the potential profit to be made.” But behind every purchase was an underpaid garment worker and an overstretched warehouse employee (in March, there were calls for PLT’s Sheffield warehouse to close for violating social distancing measures). Behind every brand victory is a sacrifice paid by those at the bottom of the supply chain.

Among this year’s losers are the retail staff bracing themselves for an onslaught of shoppers in the run up to Christmas. While Topshop employees face redundancy, Primark staff are working night shifts to support the (select) stores 24/7 opening hours. This is the pinnacle of hypercapitalist madness, where a non-essential store opens it doors to make up for lost sales instead of guaranteeing that they have paid their garment workers’ wages back in full.

The collapse of the Arcadia Group places supplier factories in a similarly precarious position. It is estimated that Arcadia cancelled in excess of £100m worth of existing orders with suppliers, a debt that is unlikely to be repaid. At the other end of the supply chain, multi-billionaire chairman Philip Green will sail away largely unscathed on his superyacht. Topshop’s demise, however, is not a triumph for the sustainability movement. The loss of brick-and-mortar stores ushers in a new wave of fashion e-tailers, many of whom have a long history of labour and environmental scandals. The race to the bottom and the battle for fast fashion supremacy, then, is ultimately a loss for garment workers and the planet.

There have been some victories this year. Remake’s #PayUp campaign forced over 19 brands to pay back orders totalling upwards of $600 million. Meanwhile, a watchdog investigation was launched into greenwashing and the All-Party Parliamentary Group put sustainable fashion back on the government’s agenda. One of my favourite wins of 2020 was photographer Jake Walter’s revenge on the Arcadia mogul. Walter posted an unflattering picture of Green taken in 2005 which frames him as the “prick” he really is.

But these wins feel few and far between. The fashion industry hurts the worker, traps the consumer and exhausts the global working class. Like footfall soldiers on a battlefield, garment workers are treated as disposable, so are the clothes that they make. The fashion industry is built on exploitation, but it’s the billionaire at the top who reaps the spoils of their labour. In fashion, there are far more losers than winners.

I am taking a much-needed seasonal break and will resume usual content in the new year (otherwise the next post would be scheduled for Christmas Day and I’m not sure that’s the gloomy present anybody is after!) I want to wish everybody a happy holiday, whether that’s rewinding after an overwhelming year or enjoying the festivities. I will still be sharing reading recommendations over on Twitter so feel free to follow me @melissawatttt for your daily fix of critical fashion takes x

In other news…

#IWantToQuitFastFashionBecause was trending, thanks to Aja Barber. Timed to counter the consumerist mania that is Cyber Monday, Aja started the hashtag to educate and empower other Twitter users to embark on their own sustainability journey. Ruth MacGilp reflected on the conversations impact and kindly featured a tweet of my own. One of the key takeaways, for me, was that those who have the privilege to quit fast fashion absolutely should. If you’ve ever called yourself an intersectional feminist or anti-racist, then you need to put your money where your mouth is. I’ve spoken about it in countless editions before but the poor argument is an intellectually dishonest one, most often pedalled by those who don’t actually buy fast fashion out of necessity (the sustainability movement, for the record, has never shamed those who do). While the affordability argument is questionable at times - the cost per wear is often higher for poorer quality clothes, for example - it deliberately leaves the socio-economic and environmental costs out of the equation. The western consumer’s “right” to dirt cheap clothes should never trump the garment worker’s right to fair living wages and safe employment. And I think planetary health should have a say in the matter too! For more on this topic, I recommend reading this Instagram post by Aja on the difference between being poor and broke and this IGTV by Shingi on why privileged people never need fast fashion.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

  • A new report by the Worker Rights Consortium has found that, of the 400 global garment workers interviewed, 80% are going hungry as a result of the cancelled orders crisis.

  • The EU “will contribute more than 100 million euros to a Bangladeshi welfare programme to aid thousands of garment workers hit by job losses and pay cuts during the coronavirus pandemic”. While the news is to be welcomed, there is something to be said about using public funds to help alleviate a crisis caused by big fashion retailers - when will they have to #PayUp? When will those responsible be held accountable?

  • “The pandemic will accelerate trends that were in motion prior to the crisis, as shopping shifts to digital and consumers continue to champion fairness and social justice.” - 2020 has sent shockwaves throughout the fashion industry, and 2021 looks set for even more change. You can read the latest predictions in The BOF’s State of Fashion 2021 Report.

  • Bella Hadid’s Instagram comment went viral when she told one of her followers that she’d send her the link to her $16.99 dress. While many praised Hadid for being the generous friend we all wish we had, others, like Shama Nasinde, questioned whether celebrities should ever promote fast fashion.

  • I highly recommend reading this mini essay series by Harry Aslam which looks at the future of fashion and textiles, from cotton to circularity.

  • This is more new to me than news but I wanted to share the work of the Fashion Minority Alliance - “a non-profit and non-partisan special interest group with the objective to tactically work with fashion and beauty industry stakeholders to build and foster a more diverse, balanced, and inclusive industry that advances meaningful and long-term equity for Black and minority talent”. You can find out more about what they do here and donate to their cause here.

  • Demi Colleen (my vegan idol) and her tampon string are travelling the streets of London as part of DAME’s first London bus campaign which aims to destigmatise periods. With “Bleed red. Think green” in huge letters, I think this is one of my favourite adverts this year!

  • Do you ever come across a post that puts into words exactly what you’ve been thinking? That’s how I feel about Whitney Bauck’s latest piece on why we need to stop looking to fashion brands to save us.

  • Christian Allaire shares their 5 key takeaways from Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto.

  • I truly swooned over Refinery 29’s latest miniseries: Bags of Style, featuring an ode to the clutches we never got to wear this year and plus-size women on how they found a complex solace in handbags when ignored by the ready-to-wear sector.

  • “I used to get paid by fast fashion brands but now I’m an advocate for slow style” - Tara Stewart on her fashion awakening.

  • The jewellery trade relies on minerals tainted with death, Tansy Hoskin reports.

  • Following her recent op-ed that resonated with many, Elizabeth Cline spoke to the Sustainable Fashion Forum founder, Brittany Sierra, about the myth of conscious consumerism, the difference between ethical consumers and consumer activists and, explains why simply shopping sustainably isn't enough. You can watch the full video here.

  • Vogue sustainability editor, Rachel Cernansky, interviewed behavioural psychologists to find out whether fast fashion is an addiction (paywall).

What is greentrolling?

Where there is greenwashing, there is greentrolling and Mary Heglar, the co-author of climate newsletter and podcast Hot Take, is at the forefront with an impressive portfolio of “this you?” tweets aimed at fibbing fossil fuel companies. In simple terms, greentrolling is responding to greenwashing brands in a way that exposes the hypocrisy behind their marketing campaigns. Greentrolling is more than an effective strategy to undermine a brand’s credibility, it is, in Mary’s own words, “an easy way to attract newcomers to the climate movement—and have fun in the process.”

Here’s Mary’s how-to guide on greentrolling (and I think fashion brands should expect to see some damning memes heading their way):

  1. [Wait for oil company to tweet.] Do a quick google search to find them doing the exact opposite of what they say they’re doing. So, Shell tweets about a hydro farm in China? Remind them of their risky drilling in Alaska. Copy and paste the article with the caption “this you?” And you’re done. 

  2. [Wait for oil company to tweet.] Remind them of their human rights abuses. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with what they actually posted, because it has everything to do with who they are. You can google an article for any of them very quickly because they are the literal worst.

  3. [Wait for oil company to tweet.] Respond with #Abolish[oilcompany].

  4. [Wait for oil company to tweet.] Respond with emojis, gifs, a quick “fuck you.” 

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