By Chere Di Boscio
Recently in the UK, fast fashion brands have done something that would never have happened before magazines like Eluxe ever existed: they made people furious by offering very cheap clothing to shoppers.
Decades ago, such low prices would have been greeted with delight and gratitude. And yet today, the anger about the £5 bandeau bodycon mini dress by Boohoo was only surpassed by rage over the now infamous £1 bikini from Missguided.
So, why all the fury? And how can a £1 bikini actually be sold for profit, anyway?
Why We Need To Be Outraged At The £1 Bikini
As you may have guessed, people were outraged over the blatant pushing of fast fashion, because it’s an extremely wasteful industry.
A recent report by British Members of Parliament (MPs) investigating the fashion industry put it bluntly: in terms of environmental degradation, the textile industry creates 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 a year, more than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of water, and creates chemical and plastic pollution – as much as 35% of microplastics found in the ocean come from synthetic clothing.
In other words, fast fashion is killing the planet. But exactly what does fast fashion entail?
How Fast Fashion Works
-Retailers meet with producers (usually in poorer countries) and encourage them to undercut each other by offering large contracts to the lowest bidders.
-The retailers buy the cheapest possible fabric, often getting big discounts by buying deadstock, and ask the factories to make their garments from that material.
-The factories pay the lowest wages possible to their workers, who are often women. Often, no benefits or overtime are paid.
-When the garments are ready, they’re shipped to the retailer. The retailer makes more money from premium goods or from high turnover of regular priced goods.
-They sometimes draw customers into the store with a ‘loss leader’ – in other words, an item that cost more than the ticket price to produce. That’s the case for the £1 bikini: they may have lost, say, £1.50 on the ‘actual’ cost of, say, £2.50 to produce it, but the customer is likely to go into the store for the bikini and leave with a pair of shorts, shoes and a top – which the retailer makes a profit on.
-After the customer purchases the cheap garment, she’s likely to toss it away after just a few uses, thinking it’s no biggie because it was only a few dollars.
-If garments don’t sell, the retailer will send them to landfill or burn them, causing land or air pollution.
Made In Britain
The weird thing is that Boohoo and Missguided actually make their clothes in the UK, and there’s no evidence they pay below the legal wage. However, in their report, British MPs found some garment workers are paid far, far below the legal minimum wage, but the Modern Slavery Act that’s intended to protect such workers isn’t powerful enough to stop wage exploitation at UK clothing factories.
There are several reasons that workers can be exploited like this in a developed country: first of all, there’s a serious lack of inspection or enforcement of factories. Secondly, none of the garment factories examined were unionised. Thirdly, a surge of illegal migrants desperate for cash let companies get away with paying illegally low wages. And fourthly, and most importantly – it seems most consumers really don’t care who made their clothes.
Today, there’s no excuse for consumers not to know the ‘true cost’ of cheap garments. Fashion Revolution has grown in popularity and makes it their mission to inform people about exploitation in fashion. The True Cost film by Andrew Morgan is available on Netflix for anyone to watch. And magazines like Eluxe have been around for over 6 years warning of the dangers of fast fashion.
And yet, in the UK, we still buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe – five times what we bought in the 1980s, which creates 1.3m tonnes of waste each year, some 350,000 tonnes of which is dumped in landfill or incinerated.
The government won’t do much to help the situation: despite all the evidence presented to the ministers by MPs, they rejected every recommendation for fighting exploitation in the fashion industry, including a ban on burning or dumping unsold stock that can be recycled. Our Prime Minister claimed the state had supported fashion sustainability measures already with a multimillion-pound grant scheme to help boost the recycling of textiles and plastic packaging.
Anger In The Industry
The government’s response was met with anger by many in the ethical industry, who struggle to compete with companies producing cheap fast fashion. And to add insult to injury, there’s an increasing amount of greenwashing that’s worsening the division between genuinely sustainable brands and those who are simply putting on a green mask to promote their business.
For example, Boohoo has recently been pushing its recycled collection called For the Future, which uses fabrics made from synthetic waste saved from landfill – but given that they’re one of the key polluters, this seems rather ironic. Does this mean they’re simply restyling their own unsold clothing into a new fashion line?
In any case, although the move is in the right direction, Boohoo’s ‘green’ collection only represents a tiny percentage of their output and seems to serve more as a PR move rather than a change of philosophy, and it should be noted that Boohoo has rebuffed several attempts by trade unions to talk to their workers.
It’s Up To Us
So, if the government isn’t willing to step in to regulate precarious working conditions, air, water and land pollution and the undercutting of compliant, ethical clothing manufacturers, what can be done?
Ultimately, it’s up to us to rise above our lust for more, more, more. To learn that there’s a huge cost behind that tiny price. To use social media to condemn, rather than praise, ‘influencers’ who proudly ‘haul’ bag after bag of fast fashion on YouTube and Instagram. To realise the government is more concerned about business than the planet. And above all, to realise that without our support, these brands can’t survive.