PRESSURING THE BRANDS OR PERPETUATING THE SYSTEM: SHOULD WE BOYCOTT FAST FASHION?

by Naomi Carter, GLOBUS Correspondent

I love to have a clear argument in a debate, but I’ll admit that this is a tricky one. Although I haven’t bought clothes from fast fashion brands for a considerable amount of time, and I now find myself overwhelmed by the bright lights, discounts and cheap-yet-tempting products at shopping, I am still not convinced that boycotting fast fashion brands really is the best way to create change within the fashion industry.

Growing consumer awareness around fast fashion is always encouraging when thinking about the dire need for change; after all, it is hard to remain passive when faced with the shocking facts about the industry’s impact on climate change (the fashion industry is responsible for up to 8% of carbon emissions), environmental degradation (three out of five fast fashion items end up in landfill) and workers’ rights (with 93% of brands not paying garment workers a living wage). The obvious, and most touted, action to address these awful facts is boycotting – simply resisting the temptation to buy more and more of the latest trends. With consumers practically addicted to the instant gratification of fast fashion, the process of breaking up with high street deals can be a challenging one but it is possible. The real question is, however, is whether it is beneficial?

To a certain extent, yes. A boycott directly tells brands that we, as consumers, will not tolerate the greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, poor working conditions and exploitation of garment workers that have become integral to fast fashion. From a moral perspective, we can argue that we should not continue to pay for fast fashion, as we are rewarding brands for bad practice and perpetuating a cycle of worker exploitation. After all, it is consumer demand that drives fast fashion in the first place – and shifting demand may force brands to shift their mindsets too. However, this fails to recognise the enormous power that fast fashion brands have over workers and consumers. With Boohoo recording a 51% rise in profit before tax in the six months leading up to August 31, 2020, despite (or maybe because of) a global pandemic, we can see that brands have significant financial power and are highly lucrative. Refusing to buy a £5 T-shirt then, may not have a significant impact on these companies, instead directly harm the workers who are the most vulnerable to supply chain volatility. With incredibly low pay and conditions imposed by suppliers, workers are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and dependency, meaning they often do not have the means to free themselves from the oppression of fast fashion.

This dichotomy between the revenue of brands and the treatment of workers isn’t just the case in the Global South; Sir Philip Green, who owns the Arcadia retail group,  ranks 154 in the 2020 Sunday Times Rich List despite the pandemic threatening 13,000 jobs. Worldwide, an estimated 60 million people work in the garment making industry, with around 80% of these workers being women. Whilst pay is often dismal – a recent investigation into Spice Girl charity T-shirts found that they were manufactured in factories paying workers the equivalent of 35p an hour– many argue that some form of employment is better than nothing or more dangerous alternatives such as prostitution. For those with this mindset, it can be easy to fall into a neo-colonialist mentality, where we, the privileged consumers in the Global North, can exclaim ‘but I’m employing people in Bangladesh when I buy this Primark top!’ and then happily ignore more fundamental problems that occurred within that top’s supply chain. Therefore, it is essential to keep perspective and privilege at the forefront of our minds when taking action against fast fashion. Boycotts are a good start, but we must be more active than simply avoiding clothes. It is critical that actions and campaigns are led by garment workers who are at the intersections of fast fashion’s social, economic, and environmental impacts. Fashion already has capitalist, colonial and patriarchal ties; actions to change the system must disrupt these systems of oppression too. We need to push for fundamental, systemic change that challenges all aspects of supply chains, including working conditions, workers’ rights, and transparency. According to the Fashion Transparency Index, 2020, major brands Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Forever 21 all score less than 10%, indicating how much these brands actually disclose to their customers.

Additionally, over-emphasis on boycotts can overemphasise individual purchasing actions without pushing for systemic change. Instead, we need to vocalise our opposition to exploitative practices, through participation in the #PayUp or #WhoMadeMyClothes campaigns, following movements such as Fashion Revolution (@fash_rev) or the Clean Clothes Campaign (@cleanclothescampaign), and continuing to research and get angry about what major brands hide from us on a daily basis. However, some believe that awareness campaigns are too intangible and slow; the planet cannot sustain the constant consumption and throwaway culture that has been bred by the fast fashion industry. Potentially, some (i.e. garment workers in the Global South) have to suffer the short-term costs of boycotting in order to preserve the planet in the long term. However, this argument is problematic in so many ways; we cannot separate fast fashion’s social, environmental, and economic impacts, and place the cost of the Global North’s demand on the workers of the Global South who are least responsible for our damaging lifestyles. It is easy for privileged consumers to call for mass boycotts because we don’t have to suffer the consequences. It is equally easy for privileged consumers to play the blame game, ignoring the fact that both making clothing in the Global South, or buying that clothing in the Global North, is not always a choice, but often a matter of survival and financial means.

Therefore, we need to take a holistic view of fast fashion and boycotts, weighing up the factors involved in garment supply chains before either mindlessly buying more, or blaming ourselves for failing to resist a sale. Whilst, of course, limiting our consumption and taking action for more sustainable fashion is vital, so is the use of perspective to see the bigger picture– we require absolute, systemic change on so many levels, and it is only through pushing for this that transformative change in the fashion industry’s problematic supply chains can occur.

As The Good Trade highlighted, “Garment workers may not be crushed by boycotts, but only because the system is already crushing them.”

Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

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