Updated: Dec 20, 2021
This Black Friday just gone saw fashion retailers slashing their prices across the country, offering cut price deals at seemingly unfathomably cheap prices. By far the most shocking account of this was the fast fashion online retailer Pretty Little Thing, owned by Boohoo. On the Pretty Little Thing website dubbing it ‘Pink Friday’ they were offering discounts of 99% on their clothes and accessories.
This saw the fashion outlet selling clothes for as cheap as 10p for the second year running. There were even reports of them giving clothes away for free. Ridiculously cheap clothes, what’s the problem? Simply, nothing sold that cheap can ever really be ethical. This is certainly the case for Pretty Little Thing and in a broader picture Boohoo, the brand leaves behind a sinister trail of ethical malpractice, environmental negligence and worrying corporate practices. Investigations into modern-slavery at factories in the UK as well as criticism for the mass-production and throwaway nature of their garments has severely dampened their public image. There are also similar practices going on throughout the fashion and textile industries in the UK and worldwide, with mass textile waste being burned or dumped and reports of deforestation being caused in the name of cheap clothing production. There is a serious cost to cheap, fast fashion.
Last year during the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic the Sunday Times launched an investigation, sending an undercover journalist to find work in a garment factory in Leicester. The results of the investigation shocked the country and made headline news, uncovering illegal wages, sweatshop conditions and lack of Covid safety regulations. In the factory that was producing goods for brands under the umbrella of Boohoo, the journalist found that workers could expect to be paid as little as £3.50 to £4 an hour. The national minimum wage for those aged 25 and over is £8.72, leading to accusations of modern slavery. The conditions inside the factory were described as hot and cramped with the floors covered in scrap material, it was likened to a sweatshop. This caused outcry in the UK however this is a regularly occurring reality overseas in which many UK companies outsource their labour.
The outsourcing of labour to developing countries has long been a practice of western companies, by outsourcing the labour to countries with lower or no minimum wages they are able to turn more profit. Aside from the ethical neglect, there is also worrying environmental damage being caused by the commercial cycle of fast fashion. The leather garment industry is increasing the demand for cattle farming, causing mass deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. There is also a study from researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London aiming to expose the environmental destruction being wrought by supply chains in the developing world producing goods for UK consumers. The study has found that garment factories in Cambodia have been illegally logging trees and burning them in order to fuel their factories, one in three factories in Cambodia now burns forest wood, and those are just the ones that admit it. Cambodia is one of many nations used by UK companies to outsource textile production, therefore outsourcing their carbon emissions and by default the UKs. Cambodia is estimated to produce more than 40,000 tons of clothing for the UK market each year. This environmental cost is not considered by customers when they are presented with an almost too good to turn down sale offer. It is certainly too good to be true.
Aside from deforestation there is the issue of surplus products and waste materials. The rise in demand and production in the fashion industry is causing more and more waste, be this material off cuts, clothes deemed below market standards or consumers throwing away their excess clothes. In 2014 people on average were buying 60% more clothes than they were in 2000 and they were only keeping them for half as long, a trend that is only on the rise. It is no wonder then, that an estimated 85% of textiles are wasted each year, ending up in landfills or being burnt. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. Even if clothes weren’t being wasted and thrown away the rising production of garments has other damaging effects to the environment. Polyester is a material used in over 60% of garments, polyester is non-biodegradable and involves carbon intensive production, it is estimated that polyester production involves the use of over 70 million barrels of oil each year. It does not end there as polyester clothes carry on polluting even after they have been manufactured. Washing clothes releases around 500,000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year. An estimated 35% of all microplastics in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles such as polyester.
All in all, fast fashion practices need to be curbed, the ethical human and environmental impacts are too damaging. Events like Black Friday only serve to accelerate the harmful culture of mass production. There needs to be much more regulation over how clothes are made, who makes them and how many clothes are being made. As well as this the public need to have a better education on where their clothes came from, the human and environmental story that led to it being in their possession. Until these things happen the cycle of fast fashion will continue to ramp up, to dangerous levels.