Fast Fashion and Oppression: Why You Can’t Have One Without the Other
With the Black Lives Matter at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, it’s no surprise that a number of brands have attempted to capitalise on this. After expressing support for the movement on Instagram, L’Oreal were called out for racial hypocrisy by model and transgender activist, Munroe Bergdorf, who was dropped from a L’Oreal campaign in 2017 after speaking out against racism and white supremacy following protests in Virginia.Amazon was also criticised for its statement “in solidarity with the black community”, despite the company’s repeated human rights violations in the past.
Another brand to come out with a statement was In The Style, an online fashion retailer established in 2013 that stretches the limits of fast fashion, churning out a new collection shipped from China with a 70% mark up every 2 weeks. On 30th May they posted an image of solidarity to their Instagram with the caption;
‘We hear you, we see you and we stand with you! #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. We are angry, sad, frustrated, infuriated and heartbroken about the recent events that lead to the murder of George Floyd. As a brand we will stand with you until the only acceptable amount of racism is ZERO RACISM. It is no longer enough to simply not be racist, we much be anti-racist. We are working on something to show our support to this and make sure we never let this happen again! #georgefloyd’
Shortly afterwards the brand released a charity t-shirt using the same design, promising 100% of profits would be donated to the George Floyd Memorial Fund. Inevitably, this was met with backlash, as people began to accuse In The Style of attempting to capitalise on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially when they had embarked on few campaigns with black and POC influencers in the past – their only two black representatives being Yewande Biala, of Love Island fame, and beauty blogger, Laila Loves. Their Instagram feed is also highly white-washed, with few black or POC models showcased, though notably more following the current backlash. Further investigation also proved that the brand had stolen the design from an independent artist, madebynere. ‘In The Style contacted me and everything is okay now,’ she told me when I reached out via Instagram. ‘I was disappointed with it because my image went viral and they took advantage of the moment to make t-shirts… they even modified it by adding a couple of lines and lightening the skin tones!’ While the brand attempted damage control by removing the t-shirt from their website, apologising to Nere, and making a statement via their Instagram story, many have been left with questions regarding the ethicality of brands who claim to support human rights, diversity, and Black Lives Matter.
What the case of In The Style helps to illustrate is that fast fashion is, and always will be oppressive.
It is a well-documented fact that garment workers providing for companies like this – notably Zara, H&M, Primark, FashionNova and more – consistently underpay their workers and force them to work in unsafe, unhealthy, and oppressive conditions. The biggest exposé of the fast fashion industry was prompted by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whereby a garment factory collapsed killing 1,138 people, including children. Building operators ignored signs of structural instability after cracks began to form in the building the day before it collapsed. It was later found that the building had been constructed as a commercial property for a shopping mall and offices, never for use as a factory or an apartment complex.
Human rights violations and instances of modern slavery are also rife throughout all western supply chains, particularly fast fashion. The majority of garment workers are not paid an appropriate living wage, often because of inconsistency and confusion among corporations about what a living wage is, as well as weak enforcement of worker’s rights.
In a 2018 investigation by Global Labour Justice, female H&M and Gap factory workers across Asia were found to receive daily abuse and gender-based violence. The noted abuse included rape, slapping, gendered bullying and the misuse of power in order to pursue sexual relationships. A year earlier, Zara was accused of not paying garment workers in Turkey after a number of handwritten notes were found sewn into clothing, stating, “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” While much of this exploitation occurs in the global south, particularly Asia, it can still be found under our noses – in 2019, Fashion Nova was found to be using sweatshops in Los Angeles where workers were paid ‘illegally low’ wages by the Federal Labour Department.
According to the International Labour Organisation, around 170 million children are engaged in illegal child labour, with many of these working within the fashion supply chain for Western retailers. Children are often preferred in the fashion industry because tasks are more suited to them, for example, they are hired as cotton pickers for their smaller fingers, which are less likely to damage the crop. They are also desirable for their lack of involvement in unions and other groups that bargain for better conditions; “These are very low-skilled workers without a voice, so they are easy targets,” a 2013 report from the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, stated.
As the world struggles in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, garment workers are still being exploited to fulfil the impossible demand of increasing online shopping. Many workers have gone unpaid for their labour, with brands like Arcadia (the parent company of Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and more), Debenhams, New Look, ASDA, Sports Direct, Peacocks, Primark, ASOS, and Urban Outfitters backtracking on contracts and cancelling outstanding orders. As a result, many factory workers have lost their livelihoods with no opportunity for furlough – and those who have managed to keep their jobs are forced to work in unsafe conditions with no social distancing measures in order to keep churning out products.
While oppression within fashion supply chains is inevitable, it is also experienced indirectly by the communities where the environmental consequences of fast fashion are felt most heavily. According to the United Nations, the fast fashion industry is responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than the aviation and shipping industry combined. Other issues like water intensiveness, non-biodegradable microplastic release, and the burning and burying of rejected clothes, have all arisen as a by-product of the fashion industry. Climate change was been widely reported to disproportionately effect both the poor and indigenous people, due to their heightened vulnerability to its consequences, despite being among those who have contributed the least to climate change. A 2018 report by the International Labour Organisation found that there were six shared characteristics amongst indigenous groups in the context of environmental impacts – first, their poverty; second, their dependence on renewable resources; third, their geographical placement in ecosystems that are most exposed to climate changes; fourth, their tendency to migrate when conditions become unliveable; fifth, gender inequality; and sixth, their lack of recognition and representation in institutions and governments.
Real evidence is also increasing to support claims that the poor suffer greater harm from climate change. A 2016 report attributed this to their placement in locations vulnerable to mud slides, flooding, water contamination, drought, and freak weather events. The cost of repairing damages for such issues also consumed a large proportion of the average household’s spending. The report also found that a majority of those affected by their geographical placement were also within a discriminated minority – Black, Asian, and Hispanic groups.
At every level, fast fashion is oppressive. At its top level, it is largely white-washed and exclusive of the communities it claims to support. Within its supply chain it oppresses its workers by not providing them a living wage, forcing them to work underage, and systematically abusing their human rights. And as a by-product of its contribution to climate change, it disproportionately negatively affects the poor, Indigenous, Black and minority ethnic groups on the front line of the climate disaster. Remedying institutionalised oppression with a charity t-shirt only puts a plaster over a gaping wound.
I reached out to In The Style for a comment, however, received no reply.
Image by: Artem Beliaikin