Sustainability – the trending term on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days. It’s a broad term that means something different to everyone. Nonetheless, it’s important to consider the three pillars sustainability is built upon; economy, society and the environment.
Covid-19 (Coronavirus) has been coined the ‘reset button’ for Mother earth. It’s a chance for humans to rethink our approach to the current economy, society and environment. As people strive to live a more conscious lifestyle, sustainability is starting to be incorporated into numerous facets of their lives. Companies in every industry are feeling the heat to match these efforts. However, from my observations and research, there can often to be a mismatch – not everyone is practising what they preach. The desire to be seen as a virtuous contributor outweighs the cause itself.
I walked into a clothing store today. A beautiful dress caught my eye – perfect for this summer! The price tag was attached and a security tag too. I didn’t feel like paying for it at that moment. But still, I wanted it. I walked towards the door, without paying. Immediately the security alarm started ringing. I wasn’t slightly embarrassed, as the other shoppers looked on in shame. A large security guard came charging towards me. Here’s how it all went down:
The above fictional scenario is absolutely unimaginable, right? We empathise with the security guard. He is doing his job. He has a family with his own financial commitments. Nonetheless, justice was served because an arrest took place, as a result of MY unethical actions. French YouTuber, Justine Leconte recently brought to my attention that these unimaginable situations are happening right now in the fashion industry, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As covid-19 swept across the world governments implemented mandatory lockdowns and the world came to a complete freeze. A pandemic that created panic. Retail stores closed abruptly, relying solely on e-commerce transactions. Consequently, many employees lost their jobs, either temporarily (furloughed) or permanently. Public spending lost its confidence too with unfavourable GDP predictions looming for a year that promised 2020 vision. It’s fair to say that this bizarre twist of events demonstrates the necessity for a financial safety net – every right-winger’s worst nightmare – the dreaded government assistance. But if people in typically ‘safe’ professions are feeling the pinch, how are society’s most vulnerable coping during these increasingly challenging times?
Fast fashion is operating on a colossal scale. Inditex is the umbrella brand of popular high-street brands such as Zara, Pull&Bear, Bershka, H&M, etc., who claim to have a three-week turn around from drawing board to shop floor. They create 50,000+ designs each year! This powerhouse parent brand has been experiencing the wrath of this ubiquitous virus – a dramatic one-third loss to their typically healthy share price between February 2020 and May 2020.
Third-world or developing countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey, Mexico, Vietnam and India are responsible for a large majority of the world’s garment manufacturing. Brands seek out factories that will produce garments for the lowest price point, guaranteeing the highest possible return-on-investment for shareholders. Factory conditions can be dangerous and it’s often tricky to keep track when subcontractors enter the chain of supply. Up to 80% of the workers are women, who spend 12 hours or more per day producing garments for a wage less than a western child receives from the mythical tooth-fairy. The contract is signed and the manufacturer seeks out the raw materials and labor to bring the designers’ creations to life. Industry standards mean that once a shipment is sent, an invoice can then only be processed. It takes between two weeks to 90 days to process the payment. What about all the orders that have been contractually signed off before all of this unexpectedly erupted?
Currently the focus on e-commerce sales is king. Businesses are trying to keep their heads above the unpredictable currents of Covid-19. Primark is the poster-child for fast fashion. Their product lifestyle is so fast, not even e-commerce can keep up! The effects of coronavirus has indisputably fractured Primark’s business model. Numerous popular fashion brands, such as Primark cancelled all shipments, or agreed to the scheduled shipment with the audacity to demand discounts of up to 50%. There always seems to be a handy little loophole that contradicts the ideology of the free market. As a result, the most vulnerable suffer (4.1 million Bangladeshi workers) the consequences of an unsustainable, self-serving capitalist system. ‘Force majeure’ is the contract clause companies are using as a lifeboat in these rough seas. It “frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic or an event described by the legal term ‘act of God’, prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.” Logically this clause would suffice, if a contract was recently signed and work hadn’t started or been completed. But this is not the case. The demand doesn’t currently exist for Primark. Therefore, the suppliers in Bangladesh will suffer the ramifications of around a $5 Billion loss.
Public scrutiny enhanced pressure on Primark’s image. They agreed to pay €418 Million of cancelled orders, but never specified the percentage this figure reflected of the total outstanding bill. Additionally, repayments aren’t set in stone and a projection of autumn 2020 is only an estimation. Paul Marchant, Primark CEO, stated, “We have been in close and regular contact with our suppliers over the last few weeks to find a way forward, and to pay for as much of the previously ordered product as possible.” Primark’s UK website features a nice banner on their homepage ‘Primark supports the fight against Covid-19.’ How very interesting and caring of them! Their public relations response is the following, “We are donating Primark products to those in need, in partnership with healthcare and charitable organisations in cities and towns around the world where we have stores. This is our team helping your team.”Primark are proud to donate 400,000 products to the frontline workers – underwear, leggings, t-shirts, footwear, and towels. Of course, it’s a very nice contribution during this time of need and support. However the real question that needs to be asked is, have Primark paid their suppliers, or are these donations essentially stolen goods?
As an Irish woman, I grew up with the Irish brand Primark (known as Penneys in Ireland) as the cornerstone of fashion. But as an older and wiser 28-year-old, their approach during this pandemic has indefinitely left a sour taste in my mouth. I refuse to support this brand any longer. This is a topic that many often choose to ignore because well, where to start? The entire product lifecycle of many of these brands is unquestionably flawed and deeply tangled, regardless of their claims stating otherwise. We are attracted by the enticing social media campaigns and alluring shop-windows. It makes the reality of what lies beneath the surface a lot less sexy.
The refusal of brands to follow through on their financial commitments during this crisis means the Bangladeshi mother sewing your mass-produced dress will struggle, more than ever to provide food for her children. The unbelievable thing is that we then send our used clothes to these impoverished communities as a ‘charitable donation’ to soothe our conscience – #GivingBack. These are the very garments that decimate a community from the outset. Women often carry the weight of these situations, which is accurately outlined so well in one of my favourite books by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn – Half The Sky – How to Change the World.
It’s time to hold these brands accountable. This is the time for them to morally and ethically practice what they preach – sustainability! The long-term outcome for many of these brands depends on how they behave in the present to influence the future of the fashion industry. It can either be a public relations dream or a nightmare. Vulnerable workers and factory managers lives’ are being destroyed. They don’t have the same safety nets we are lucky to have in Europe. If nothing at all, maybe our voices of outrage can provide the safety needed – as illustrated, as consumers we create the demand and we can demand action. Garments aren’t perishable items, but human lives most certainly are.
Join the conversation with the hashtag #PayUp if you feel that brands should follow through on their financial commitments. Check out Fashion Revolution to stay updated on sustainability news in the fashion industry.
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