Fast Fashion in the Midst of Two Global Pandemics

By Holly Barrow

Six months into 2020, the year has thrown major curveballs that are set to alter our prior versions of ‘normality’ for years to come. The arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent devastation have been felt across the globe. At the same time, we also battle a pre-existing pandemic: racism. 

With the tragic death of George Floyd in the U.S. at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the world has erupted into protests and riots as we desperately demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism. 

Both Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have forced the world to stop and act upon the many injustices we face. In the midst of this, one industry being cast under the spotlight is fast fashion – and particularly its reliance on cheap manufacturing at the expense of low-paid, often exploited garment workers in low to middle income countries. 

As we fight both pandemics, fast fashion has faced scathing criticism. With regard to Covid-19, many of the globe’s leading fast fashion retailers – including the likes of Topshop and Primark – were recently exposed for having cancelled orders with their global supply chains and subsequently refusing to pay for work already completed. This came as a direct consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic, as a decline in consumer demand coincided with the closure of supply chains in both China and Bangladesh – measures put in place to protect against the infectious disease outbreak. 

Both the closure of supply chains and the decline in consumer demand proved detrimental to fast fashion brands, who reported significant drops in sales compared with this time last year. Yet neither justify the callous, life endangering approach of successful brands refusing to pay their already-vulnerable garment workers for work already done

This has reignited a necessary dialogue regarding the repercussions of fast fashion on both human lives and the planet. Regrettably, this is not a new problem. In recent years, calls for fashion brands to move to more sustainable, ethical practices have been gaining momentum.

The threat to the climate is just one aspect of this. With the cultural rise in instant gratification, fast fashion has come to dominate economies across the globe. Its ability to spurn out cheap, low quality clothing pieces which replicate luxury, high end catwalk trends has become a hugely popular – and successful – model. Yet, with such a cheap price tag comes a high sacrifice to both the environment and those working behind the scenes. 

Fast fashion has shifted public perception and consciousness with regard to clothing, as it is increasingly viewed as disposable and replaceable. Boohoo – one of the UK’s most successful eCommerce retailers – received widespread backlash after one of the brand’s sales saw dresses sold for as little as £4. This contributes to excessive overconsumption patterns and almost promotes the idea that clothes are to be worn a handful of times before being replaced. Clothing items from the likes of Boohoo are, on average, reported to be discarded after just five weeks

Sales such as these across fast-fashion retailers undeniably contribute to the immense amount of clothing which ends up in landfill each year, estimated at £140 million worth of clothes. 

Even the process of production is permeated with practices known to be deeply damaging to the planet. The fast fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. The likes of packaging, for example – including something as easily overlooked as the branded printed tape attached to parcels – can impede the process of recycling while releasing toxins into the atmosphere through adhesive manufacturing. 

It is fair to say, then, that the environmental repercussions are wreaking havoc on our planet. Yet, receiving particular criticism during the Covid-19 pandemic is the human cost behind fast fashion. 

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Human exploitation across global supply chains is rife. Garment workers in developing countries often work for less than minimum wage within factories and warehouses notorious for being unsafe. Throughout the duration of the pandemic and following the recent death of George Floyd, this reliance on cheap labour has rightly been brought to attention. Many of those working in such supply chains – both domestic and global – tend to be migrants or members of ethnic minority groups. In Bangladesh, women are being laid-off in much greater numbers than men; many working in its export-garment industry. 

As citizens across the world fight against racism and injustice, the current crises are reinforcing the levels of oppression which exist within the fast fashion industry and are provoking demands for change. There is a growing demand for fashion retailers to be transparent about their supply chains and the labour behind the label. 

One way in which the industry could shift to a more ethical model would be to move to ‘slow fashion’. Sustainable and ethical fashion must now be a priority; this means everything from manufacturing to product must operate in a way that protects and preserves both the planet and human lives. With higher quality will inevitably come a higher price tag, yet this could work to reduce the endless cycle of consumption and disposability. 

The world may currently be in a turbulent state, yet this could be a time for real, substantive change. 

Holly Barrow is a Content Writer for Printed Tape, which offers eco friendly, recyclable printed paper tape ideal for custom brand packaging 

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