Ultrafast fashion offers cheap styles - but its business model threatens garment workers rights

15/7/19 - Alysha Khambay, Labour Researcher at BHRRC

Online retailers like Boohoo and Missguided encourage a race to the bottom among fashion brands, writes Alysha Khambay

Buying the latest fashion trends has become even faster, with consumers able to copy the looks of celebrities and influencers on Instagram at dizzying speeds and for jaw-dropping prices. But the rise of ultrafast fashion relies on a business model which encourages a race to the bottom among fashion brands, and threatens to roll back hard-won rights for garment workers.

In the mid-1990s, so-called ‘fast fashion’ sped up production from new lines of clothing every season to every six weeks. Now, ‘ultrafast fashion’ retailers like Boohoo and Missguided are enjoying huge growth and record profits at a time of high street losses, by offering 1,000s of new styles a week for pocket change and delivered to your door. Dresses are being sold for as little as £4 and bikinis for just £1 - prices that would have seemed ridiculous until quite recently.

Given the super-fast turnover this requires to keep up with trends, much of the clothes for ultrafast fashion outlets in the UK are being made in places like Leicester, Manchester and London, reviving those cities’ once thriving garment sectors.

Yet these benefits come at a cost. A recent piece in The Guardian charted the growing evidence of social and environmental damage caused by ultrafast fashion in the UK. The wasteful nature of this model, with clothes thrown away after an average of just five weeks, was also recorded in a recent Environmental Audit Committee report on ‘throwaway fashion’.

Yet beyond this toll on the environment, ultrafast fashion has a direct human cost to the garment workers toiling away to meet ballooning demand, who risk being exploited and abused. Garment workers in factories in Leicester are being paid as little as £3 an hour – well below the minimum wage, let alone what is needed to cover basic living costs. They also face a range of abuses, from harassment and violence and unsafe working conditions to unpaid overtime and denial of the right to form or join a union.

Years after some of these issues were uncovered, we understand from our work that conditions in Leicester might not be improving, and worse, that similar exploitation is happening in other fashion hubs such as Manchester and the nation’s capital, London.

It is no secret that millions of workers making our clothes face abuse in supply chains across the globe, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, Ethiopia and beyond. Yet reports of the same forms of abuse cropping up in the UK, the United States and parts of Europe are a reminder that labour abuse is a global blight, affecting workers everywhere.

One cause of this abuse is the “test and repeat” approach, where brands identify popular styles on social media and rapidly produce small batches of a product to test demand. If the clothes prove popular, repeat orders are placed. If unpopular, the product is discontinued. This means suppliers are under pressure to meet fluctuating orders for clothes at shorter lead times and for lower prices.

As we have seen in the garment sector in Turkey, exploitative purchasing practices can lead to the abuse and exploitation of workers, who take the brunt of these unrealistic demands on suppliers. This situation creates incentives for using casual labour, excessive overtime and unauthorised subcontracting to factories and workshops spared the oversight of brands’ compliance audits, with bargain basement working conditions and standards.

The revival of garment production in the UK provides huge opportunities for the economy and much-needed manufacturing jobs for working people. But the cost of these benefits – and of affordable fashion goods – must not come at the expense of workers’ human rights. A race to cheap looks and cheaper profits through ultrafast fashion models is not sustainable and makes low-paid consumers complicit in the exploitation of other low-paid workers.

Governments should pass laws giving brands a legal duty to identify and prevent labour abuse in their supply chains, and back this up with real penalties. And fashion brands should embrace such regulatory efforts to end this appalling mistreatment of garment workers. At a time when consumers increasingly want their goods to be produced ethically, anything less would not be a good look.

 Alysha Khambay is Labour Researcher at BHRRC