Over the past year, the lockdowns and closed borders made people all over the world suddenly confined to their homes. This new normal also prompted the planet to change. As a consequence of significantly reduced transport and decreased consumption, the global CO2 emissions decreased by 17% in April 2020 compared to the year before. Even though the idea of cleaner air and the images of animals returning to their natural habitats seems so great, there is another side of the reduced-consumption coin that is, unfortunately, not so positive.
Lack of social life, uncertainty, and financial hardships that many experienced as an indirect result of the pandemic have undoubtedly influenced the consumption behavior of people worldwide. With over 114 million people losing their jobs it is not shocking to see that purchasing power and overall consumption decrease as well. The Fast Fashion industry that is notoriously linked to overconsumption, environmental pollution, and violation of workers rights is among the many industries that were affected by the ongoing pandemic. With an enormous number of people being locked in their homes and with shopping being the last thing on their minds, fashion brands have experienced one of the lowest economic profits in history. While reduced consumption is indeed good for the environment, the people at the end of the supply chains are, on the other hand, suffering.
Hey fashion industry, pay up!
As a response to the plummeting of clothing sales, the vast majority of fashion giants have decided to cancel the orders for the upcoming collections including orders that were already placed. All of that would have been fine. After all, what is the point of selling clothes when there is nobody to buy them? However, it is not as simple as that.
The way the global fashion industry usually operates is they do not pay for their orders when placing them with the manufacturers, but rather days or sometimes even months after the orders have been completed. What this means for the manufacturers is if they want to do business with huge fashion brands, they need to cover the costs for the materials and the work themselves. This makes them take huge financial risks like getting into debt if the brands decide not to pay for their orders.
What about the fashion workers?
With legal protection of the manufactures being practically non-existent in most of the developing nations where the majority of clothing production takes place, fast fashion brands are legally not held responsible for bailing on their suppliers. While the impact for fast fashion brands is minimal, the consequences were destructive for many clothing manufacturers. Due to the lack of responsibility from the fashion industry giants, the factories were left with tons of garments, no money to pay off their workers, and no other choice but to let them go.
According to Bloomberg, approximately 1089 factories in Bangladesh had orders worth over $1.5 billion cancelled as a result of the pandemic situation. Consequently, the salaries of fashion workers, who are already substantially underpaid and mostly live from hand to mouth with no savings, were either cut down or were not paid at all. With many factories being forced to close down, the already dreadful poverty situation in these developing nations was even further accelerated. Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) found that the average salaries of the garment workers decreased by more than 20% from an already extremely low average of $187 to $147 per month during the pandemic.
Similarly, in Cambodia, hundreds of shoes and textile manufacturers had to close down their factories while others had to suspend many of their employees. While those with their employment suspended were “lucky” to at least receive a monthly allowance of approximately $70 to cover their expenses, those who worked in the factories that closed down did not receive any severance payments or even the salaries that were already owed to them. Unfortunately, these scenarios in Bangladesh and Cambodia are not alone as this crisis struck hundreds of garment workers across many nations.
“Poverty is a killer too, and many more people die from poverty than from COVID-19”. –Mostafiz Uddin, Bangladeshi garment manufacturer
From my point of view, what this situation has taught us is that with millions of people in developing nations relying on the jobs that the fashion industry gives them, it is not entirely feasible to stop production in these countries. These people, like everyone else in the world, need to work to survive. Rather than taking away their jobs, it is necessary to change the way the industry works.
It is essential to move from using environmentally damaging manufacturing techniques and materials to sustainable ones, from prioritizing quantity and profit to putting the quality, the well-being of the people and the planet first. While there is an increasing number of activist movements fighting against the exploitation of the fashion workers and violation of their rights, it is largely up to us, consumers, to change our consumption patterns and demand the fashion industry to change the way it currently works. After all, it is the money we spend with these brands that drives their actions.
Cover: Francois Le Nguyen
Edited by: Younes Skalli