COVID-19 is causing multi-billion dollar bills in the fashion industry

  • The fashion industry has long been under fire for human rights abuses.
  • But the COVID-19 crisis sheds new light on these abuses.
  • Without a system that enables consumers to hold businesses accountable, the abuse will continue.
  • Nicky is a writer and speaker who mainly deals with arts and culture.
  • This is a split opinion. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.

The fashion industry has long been the focus of human rights activists. Child labor, pexcessive wages, and a lack of transparency means that textile workers – especially in the global south – are consistently exploited.

The same applies to environmental concerns: The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the CO2 emissions of mankind, 35% of all microplastics in the sea and 85% of all textiles produced annually end up in landfills. With statistics like this, it is clear that the fashion industry will have to wait a long time to settle accounts.

COVID-19 is this billing.

Fashionably late

In April, The guard reported that major fashion brands including Primark and Matalan had canceled or suspended orders for £ 2.4 billion worth of clothing from factories in Bangladesh. Over 97% of suppliers surveyed by WRC and Penn State University said brands “did not offer financial assistance” to cover vacation or severance pay; the WRC Executive Director described the situation as “wholesale abandonment of workers and suppliers” by brands.

Are factory owners who operate with low profit margins and have no access to cash reserves or credit unable to pay their workers – who do not earn enough themselves to amass the savings they need to survive this pandemic. While brands strive to minimize losses, factory owners and workers in Bangladesh face poverty.

Closer to home, the brands ASOS and Boohoo both made headlines over unsanitary working conditions in their UK factories, which directly led to COVID-19 outbreaks in both locations. Boohoo, in particular, has been criticized for allegedly paying workers from € 3.50 per hour at a factory in Leicester – less than half the UK legal minimum wage of £ 8.72 an hour. Though Boohoo said the factory was subcontracted and the bran didn’t investigate their supply chain, sales were booming by that point and bosses were lining up to earn £ 150 million in bonuses.

ASOS meanwhile 70 workers laid off at the beginning of the outbreak when they switched delivery supplier (from Menzies to DPD). The administrators and drivers were originally informed that their contracts would be transferred just so that DPD would honor its commitment and announce their dismissal on May 1st.

A new light on abuse

Whether in the UK or beyond, the impact COVID-19 is having on the fashion industry is unmistakable. As the crisis has unfolded it has exposed many of the systemic problems in the industry – unclear supply chains, worker exploitation and extreme waste to name a few – but we still have to find sustainable solutions to these problems.

Initiatives like Mallzee’s Lost Stock were born to fill the void left by brands leaving their suppliers. Consumers can purchase a tailored bag of clothing from Lost Stock for £ 35 – a 50% discount off the estimated retail price of £ 70. Lost Stock website claims that each bag supports a Bangladeshi worker and his family for a week.

While an innovative solution to the dual problem of helping workers and reducing waste, initiatives like this speak to our neoliberal, late capitalist era by making consumers responsible for solving the deep-seated problems in the fashion industry. While brands continue to benefit from the exploitation of their workers, the burden of “doing the right thing” and saving these workers rests on individuals – many of whom are themselves suffering from COVID-related layoffs and short-time work.

Also, when calling on individuals to help end systemic problems, initiatives like this require the public to make difficult personal decisions about what is important to them as they are asked to split their disposable income between causes – BLM, local Boards, queer fundraisers, etc. The focus is on individual consumers making ethical decisions for the common good rather than holding brands accountable.

Mallzee’s program appeals to consumer self-interest: it is undeniably positive that the garments are not wasted, but the 50% discount speaks for a world where we are primarily consumers; where everything is transactional and a good deed comes with a material reward. It’s also worth noting that the focus on poverty and exploitation in other countries is leading Western consumers to buy the lie that this “doesn’t happen here” and is doing the vulnerable, precarious and exploited workers in our home countries a disservice.


At a time when we should reflect on our relationship with fast fashion and our place in a deeply consumer-centric society, the response to COVID-19 seems to be a focus on more consumption. Instead of the # BoycottAsos campaign which emerged in response to the treatment of its workers by ASOS, ASOS doubled: in the week before the pubs reopened in England, ASOS offered UK buyers discounts to prepare for Super Saturday. In doing so, they encouraged the public to see themselves as consumers and used the reopening of pubs and bars as an opportunity to boost sales – although the public health advice remained clear to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel.

In all of these cases, it is the responsibility of the individual consumer to make ethical choices while we need the accountability of businesses and governments. The COVID-19 crisis has shed light on everything wrong with fast fashion: cramped, unsanitary working conditions, precarious and exploitative employment, an opaque supply chain that allows brands to abandon their workers.

It is clear that real systemic change is required and that encouraging consumers to behave “ethically” will not be enough. Without organized collective action and a system that enables us to hold brands accountable, these problems will continue under our noses.

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