Coronavirus and the fashion industry: what you need to know

High street shops are closed but fashion websites are open for business. So we can all do our bit to ‘support the economy’ by staying home and shopping online, right? Disappointingly, it’s not that straightforward – it all depends who you’re shopping with.

Coronavirus and the fashion industry: the lowdown

Thanks to the rise of fast, or throwaway, fashion in the UK, we’re now buying twice as many clothes than we did a decade ago. Or we were, in the time BC (before coronavirus).

China and Bangladesh are the biggest apparel producers in the world, but production happens all around the globe. More than 100 billion items are produced each year – Inditex (which owns Zara) produces 1.6 billion pieces alone. As such, fashion is now a £1.5 trillion industry. It also has a huge carbon footprint.

If the fashion industry were a country, its emissions would rank almost as highly as the entire European continent. (Fashion Revolution)

Coronavirus and the fashion industry: who pays?

The COVID-19 pandemic means that $3 billion worth of garments have been paused or cancelled by the biggest fashion brands, globally. And rather than paying for what they’ve already ordered, some of the brands are putting it onto garment factories to pay the cost, affecting millions of workers.

Headlines across the world are calling out brands. The BBC reports how New Look is delaying supplier payments indefinitely. Until the middle of March they were making £160,000 a day.

Primark was making £650 million a month. The BBC also reports Primark has said they will set up a fund to ensure workers who make their clothes are paid. However, details around how this will be put into practice are suspiciously hard to find. On the website, details of the extended refund policy and all the clothes they’e so generously donating in Europe are very easy to find.

“Ultimately, poverty and hunger could prove more of a threat to their lives than the virus.” (Carry Somers, Fashion Revolution co founder)

Vogue Business highlights how suppliers in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia are vulnerable even as companies like H&M and Inditex promise not to cancel existing orders. This is because of a nifty little clause in the contract that means brands don’t pay for orders until they’ve shipped. Guess what? With shops closed, shipments aren’t shipping.

“Cancelling the goods or not taking the goods — for my workers, it is the same. The worker is not getting the money,” says Mostafiz Uddin, a denim factory owner in Bangladesh. 

The NY Times shares a similar story from Sharif Zahir, the managing director of the Ananta Group, which owns seven factories with a total of 26,000 workers, manufacturing for the likes of H&M, Zara, Gap, Levi’s and Marks & Spencer. He says, “The situation is very bad. The Bangladeshi supply chain is in complete disarray with many foreign brands acting irresponsibly.”

Reuters reports on crowds of workers on the streets of Chittagong because they are still waiting for last month’s wages. Because the fashion industry is famously opaque, brands and factory owners are getting away with this behaviour.

Coronavirus and the fashion industry: doesn’t every business just have to do what they need to survive?

No. The fashion industry is built on exploitation of people and the planet. This needs to change. If you need further convincing, we’ve uncovered the most shocking facts about fast fashion; why the living wage promised by so many brands is a myth; and what sustainable fashion should be. We feel pretty strongly about this – in fact, it’s one of the reasons we created this website.

So what can we do?

You can sign this petition from fashion community Re:make, asking brands to #payup.

If you’re shopping online, check to see what the brand is saying about their actions during this pandemic. Then check to see what others are saying about them to make sure you have the full picture. Fashion Revolution and Re:make are great places to start.

Don’t have the time for that? Buy from brands who prioritise their workers, year round. Our fashion pages are a good place to start.

Main image: Denim factory in Cambodia (Remake)

About the author

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera is the founder and chief purpose officer at Live Frankly. She has been writing for mainstream publications for 10 years, specialising in sustainability and ethics since 2014.


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