The issue of fast fashion is one that has gained momentum in recent years, with the current pandemic further drawing attention to its exploitative nature. The Coronavirus currently plaguing the planet has caused devastation and disruption to all; economies have come to a halt, separation from loved ones is a necessity, and, most tragically, the number of lives lost continues to spiral. However, while we cannot downplay the horrors of the current crisis, nor should we disregard its potential to provoke real change.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, in January, lockdowns have become the new normal as nations attempt to contain the virus and protect citizens. As a result, we have seen the closure of thousands of businesses – big and small – with employees either placed on furlough, made redundant or forced to rely on government financial support schemes. This has not only drastically altered the lives of workers but similarly has forced industries to reassess its very essence in an attempt to discover alternative ways of operating. One such industry is fast fashion.

Having received mounting criticism in recent years for its devastating environmental impacts – from production to packaging – and role in perpetuating modern slavery, Covid-19 has implored the fast fashion industry to address some of its pressing downfalls – namely, its reliance on cheap labor and manufacturing. The exploitation of labor is rife across the fast fashion industry, with numerous leading brands relying on global supply chains in low to middle-income countries to suppress costs while turning a blind eye to the precarious and unethical working conditions of those they hire.

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The demand for supply chain transparency is one that has grown significantly in recent years. In 2017, a Human Rights Watch report into the exploitation of garment and factory workers in global supply chains built on the need for retailers to be transparent with the public by providing information on the factories manufacturing their products. This aims to promote corporate accountability for garment workers’ rights – something which cannot be disregarded.

In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh killed over 1,100 garment workers. Despite warnings in the days leading up to the tragedy that the building was unsafe, they were forced to continue working. At this time, supply chain transparency was largely unheard of, meaning police officers, firefighters and citizens had to trawl through the rubble to find brand labels in an attempt to seek justice for those who had lost their lives. Since this disaster, brands have faced increasing pressure to ensure the safety and wellbeing of workers within their supply chains – yet this has not brought an end to exploitation.

In Bangladesh, garment workers continue to earn little more than the minimum wage – 8,000 Taka – which equates to just $94.18 per month. Campaigners argue that at least 16,000 Taka is necessary to live comfortably.

The Role of Covid-19 in Restructuring Fast Fashion

Covid-19 has reignited the conversation surrounding workers’ rights and the devastating repercussions of fast fashion on both human lives and the environment. The infectious disease has caused huge disruptions to garment workers, with big brands recently exposed for canceling their orders with supply chains and refusing to pay despite the work having already been done. Exports from the likes of China have declined to regions across the globe, owing to factory closures and a drop in demand. This has undeniably forced the fast-fashion industry to slow down. With many of the industry’s top brands reporting a sharp decline in sales – including H&M and Zara – now seems the time for fast-fashion to re-evaluate its mechanisms while doing more to promote and protect workers’ rights.

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While Covid-19 may encourage the nationalization of supply chains – as opposed to outsourcing production across the globe – this would serve a huge blow to the developing countries which have, for years, been relied upon and frankly exploited to serve Western consumers. What ought to instead be the priority is a shift in both consumer and corporate approach to fashion, not to abandon global supply chains.

Currently, particularly across Western Europe and the US, the rise of instant gratification has seen clothing become temporary and disposable. In the US alone, around 21 billion pounds of textile waste goes to landfills each year. In keeping costs low to reproduce low-quality replicates of catwalk trend pieces, fast-fashion retailers have raked in millions at the expense of both the planet and those working grueling hours for low pay to manufacture these goods.

This can and must change. The move to a slow fashion model – something Covid-19 is gradually imposing upon the industry – seems essential. While fast fashion has had a ‘democratizing’ effect on fashion – making replicas of expensive and luxury clothing accessible to a wide range of customers – it has drastically promoted a culture of waste and has perpetuated modern slavery, with low prices coming at the expense of low-paid labor.

Slow fashion, on the contrary, prioritizes sustainability and social responsibility – and this does not require the abandonment of garment workers within global supply chains. One study describes the slow fashion movement as encompassing ‘ethical sourcing and production techniques’ while ensuring ‘the labor involved in the production of such garments receives higher wages and greater protection than its counterparts in the supply chain of the fast fashion industry’. The result is slightly more expensive garments but of much higher quality, ensuring durability while enhancing worker rights and prioritizing fair wages.

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This move to slow fashion requires education and awareness in order to encourage consumers to shop consciously and sustainably despite the higher costs. Through promoting a culture of longevity as opposed to disposability, the current nature of excessive consumption ought to decline. Government policies along with industry bodies can support this through creating initiatives for corporate responsibility. The message should be loud and clear: cheap clothes come at a high cost. It is time to expose the hidden price tag of fast fashion goods.