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It’s time to hold ‘fast fashion’ to account

In light of their vicious exploitation of workers and the massive ecological cost they bring, the government should be clamping down on fast fashion brands like Boohoo and Shein. Instead, it is enabling them, writes CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

FOR years now, the appalling exploitation of garment workers in Leicester has been well known, with manipulation, pressure and harassment endemic alongside excessive hours, terrible working conditions and pay as low as £3.50 an hour.
 
This has been largely ignored at both national and local levels, a situation that contributes to terrible hardship in my constituency of Leicester East, where more than four in 10 children live in poverty. I and others have been pushing for urgent legislation to bring this industry under control and make brands accountable for their actions, but the situation is getting worse, not better.
 
The abuse and exploitation of garment workers by a corrupt and greedy fast fashion industry is not, of course, limited to Leicester. The fashion sector is home to some of the worst excesses of corporate capitalism.

In an industry worth $1.5 trillion annually, poverty pay and workplace abuse are the global norm, with brands and retailers doing little more than pay lip service to the idea of improving their conduct while workers, mostly women, and their families continue to suffer and in many cases to die, like the 1,134 killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse and the 117 or more in the Tazreen factory fire, with many more injured.
 
In the absence of a Garment Trade Adjudicator or Fashion Watchdog, Britain should not be enabling the exploiters, let alone welcoming more. In Leicester East fashion giant Boohoo, whose unethical procurement practices were exposed in a 2020 BBC Panorama documentary, has closed the “flagship” Thurmaston Lane manufacturing site, which it supposedly set up only in 2022 in my constituency of Leicester East to show it had changed its ways, and is now selling the building.
 
A recent new Panorama programme revealed the same malpractice continuing unchecked and said that the company was using Thurmaston Lane as a front for cheap imports that it was re-labelling as “made in the UK,” a practice that workers had long complained to me about. Boohoo claimed that the BBC had come across “an isolated incident” caused by “a misinterpretation of the labelling rules” and that its improvements had “driven the industry forward.”
 
The company reportedly paid £3 million for the site, plus construction and refurbishment costs — costs that the firm will be able to write off against its profits while its former workforce struggles to find new work.
 
The firm appears to be escaping any fall-out from its behaviour and its failure to change its practices. A 2023 Bath University study, “What happened after the Boohoo scandal?,” which found that Boohoo had made only cosmetic “face-saving” changes, interviewed manufacturers and workers. One former supplier told the university:
 
“Companies like Boohoo can escape the consequences even after being exposed. They fail to pay a sustainable amount that will enable manufacturers to provide fair wages. Consequently, well-intentioned exposes, such as the Boohoo scandal, do not truly assign responsibility for those left behind, for those who bear the brunt of such industry-altering events. Brands merely shift their production to locations where cheap labour is readily available.”
 
Boohoo’s decision to close Thurmaston Lane and move its procurement of contracts elsewhere has put thousands of Leicester women, mostly South Asian, in immense difficulties during the “cost-of-living crisis,” while allowing Boohoo to distance itself from the allegations of malpractice. According to its most recently published supply chain list, Boohoo is buying the vast majority of its items outside Britain, most notably in China, Turkey, India and Pakistan.
 
The “close and move” tactic is symptomatic of the inherently exploitative nature of the fashion industry generally and fast fashion in particular — an industry that can only make a profit if clothes are dirt cheap, volumes are high and workers are paid next to nothing.

Brands and retailers chase the lowest cost, either switching suppliers or using the threat of a switch to drive down their buying cost, often to a level below the sustainable cost of production. Exploitation and misery are sewn into every fast-fashion garment.
 
As always, it is the workers and their families who suffer the results of this race to the bottom. Around 94 million people globally work in garment production, most of them in harsh, unsafe workplaces for poverty wages and inhumane hours.
 
The wider issues with the “fast fashion” industry are also immense, especially for the environment. In an industry that considers every week a new fashion “season” — Boohoo lists over 100 new items on its website every day, according to ethicalconsumer.org — garments have to be produced cheaply because so many of them are thrown away unsold or are sold off for peanuts to people who will only wear them once or twice.
 
80-100 billion new garments are made globally every year. 87 per cent of them will not be recycled, instead being incinerated or dumped into landfills — around 92m tonnes annually. In the US alone, manufacturers and retailers burn or bury 13m tons (11.8m tonnes) of unsold garments every year, because the industry overproduces fashion lines by 30-40 per cent and trends are driven to change so quickly to fuel demand.
 
Britain, for its part, dumps around 360,000 tonnes of clothes that are still wearable into landfill each year — a rate of around 10,000 items every five minutes according to Keep Britain Tidy. The average item of clothing is worn only 10 times, with many people considering a garment “old” after two or three times.
 
Landfills and incineration are far from the only impacts of fast fashion on our environment. 35 per cent of ocean plastics are estimated to come from the washing of polyester clothing, cotton production leads to around a quarter of global pesticide use and the fashion industry is on track to create more than a quarter of global emissions within a couple of decades.
 
Against such a backdrop, any reasonable government would be clamping down on the excesses, malpractice and corruption of an industry that can only exist through exploitation, corner-cutting and poverty pay. Instead, the British government is actively enabling it.
 
In February, US media reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission was preparing to block a US stock exchange listing by Chinese-Singaporean super-fast fashion giant Shein, amid concerns about the company’s reporting practices and its alleged use of modern slavery.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt responded to this by meeting Shein’s chief executive to try to lure him to list in London instead, with the Treasury boasting, “We have developed reforms to boost Britain as a destination for IPOs, including making it easier for companies to list more quickly.”
 
Shein’s churning-out of new lines dwarfs even that of Boohoo — reportedly up to 10,000 a day — and its procurement practices are allegedly as bad or worse.
 
Shein has been accused of falsifying reports of forced or underpaid labour of its supplier factories.

There is no indication that these concerns gave Hunt pause for thought before he rushed to exploit US hesitation and tempt Shein to list on the Stock Exchange — unsurprising, given the Conservatives’ contempt for human rights and the planet, amply demonstrated in attacks on our freedoms and the refusal to act against businesses that pollute our air and waterways.
 
In a country where exploitative fast fashion brands and retailers are responsible for some of the worst employment practices and environmental damage, the government needs to be moving quickly to regulate this industry to protect workers and the environment, not changing rules and abandoning principles to enable the exploiters and polluters. The cry from garment workers in Leicester and across the global South, for decent work and decent pay, must not go unheard. Our movement must rise in solidarity.
 
Claudia Webbe is the MP for Leicester East. Follow her on X @ClaudiaWebbe. 

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