Modern slavery in fast fashion

Boohoo! Fast fashion knows that we’re on to them, but is that actually going to change where we shop?

Photo by A.M. Ahad for The Associated Press.

3 minute read — By Daisy Olyett

We hear stories about sweat shops in far away countries, often across continents – sweat shops that supply our latest styles that we’d soon toss aside the following week. Although fashion is changing and people are making conscious decisions not to buy from brands who profit from child labour and long-distance shipping, this isn’t to say that fast fashion has particularly raced towards ethical standards. After recent investigations it has been discovered that brands like Boohoo and its subsidiaries have been engaging in practices similar to modern slavery. It has emerged that they have been paying some workers in the UK less than half of the national minimum wage, and providing unsanitary and unsafe workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past six months, several investigations have taken place into misconduct in factories that supply clothing to brands such as Boohoo and Missguided. It was discovered that their garment workers were being paid less than minimum wage – many were on just £3.50 an hour. But these working conditions are not just exclusive to Boohoo. They own multiple other fast fashion businesses including Nasty Gal, Pretty Little Thing, Karen Millen and Warehouse. Over half of the clothing supplied to these companies are sourced in the UK, with the majority of the production hubs based in Manchester, Leicester and London. As a result of their production being UK based, many consumers assume that their workers are being paid a fair wage – this could not be further from the truth.

In August, multiple reports surfaced exposing, not only the pressure that companies like Boohoo put on their suppliers in the pandemic, but also the unsafe conditions that factory owners exposed their workers to. Garment manufacturers reportedly forced their employees to work round-the-clock shifts during the height of the pandemic and many felt like they were “in serious danger” of contracting COVID-19. The cramped living conditions inhabited by the garment workers offered little sanctuary as their overcrowded shared housing left them susceptible to contracting to the virus. Boohoo has glorified itself on its “ethical” practices that seek to benefit a variety of communities. This claim became harder to believe upon discovering that their health and safety enforcement officers – in many cases – turned a blind eye to malpractice, and on several occasions refused to release the locations of other production hubs.

Such practices came to the attention of the mainstream media and Boohoo’s younger consumers via social media following Pretty Little Thing’s 99-percent-off sale at 12am on 27th November. The sale allowed customers to purchase items that could previously have been priced up to £80, for just 8p. As a result, many social media platforms were inundated with ‘PLT’ haul videos, where young women documented and shared the astounding amount of clothing they managed to buy for just 1 percent of its original price. Jessica Simpson took to social media to show her followers clothing worth a combined £1,600, which she had paid a mere £35 for.

Whilst many lamented on Twitter the next day about missing the deal of a lifetime, others started to question exactly how brands could profit off of selling bikinis for just 5p in a flash sale. The answer to this question is simple: by cutting corners, everywhere. By producing clothing made from weak (and often unsustainable) material, consumers have to return to buy more once the original garment has come to the end of its life span (approximately three to five wears). In addition to this, by paying their workers less than minimum wage, more can be spent on overnight shipping. This, in turn, increases the products desirability and raises profits for the company’s shareholders.

For students and young people especially, fast fashion often seems like the only viable option for on-trend apparel. It’s quick enough to arrive before a night out and consistently follows the latest trends. However, sustainable fashion communities that offer more ethically minded options are growing; sites such as Depop have flourished in the pandemic. Vintage kilo sales (where you pay for your basket by the weight) are also a great alternative to fast fashion sites.

Holidays seem like a possibility this summer as more vaccines are approved, but it is essential that consumers pick where they may find their next swimsuit, little black dress and matching heels wisely.