Covid and The Ugly Side of Fast-Fashion

As expected, the Coronavirus emergency has already had a significant impact on every industry – from food to tech and fashion. It comes with no surprise how to safeguard the health and wellbeing of employers businesses have started to shut down, take extreme measures and reduced deliveries. 

 

In particular, when it comes to fashion, well-known luxury brands from all around the world have donated their money to research and factories to manufacture lab coats and face masks. From Giorgio Armani to LVMH and Gucci, the elite of fashion has been doing its part. On the other hand, high street brands have had a slightly rougher time dealing with it. Only two weeks ago, H&M announced the closure of roughly 70% of its stores worldwide. "I am convinced that this is the best decision in this situation to further strengthen the company's already strong financial position and thereby secure our freedom of action going forward," explained Stefan Persson, chairman of the board.

 

However, when it comes to online-only fast fashion brands, things are quite the opposite. Already under fire for their unsustainable approaches, these brands have now been accused of using sales as a tactic to lure in more customers. Most of the biggest retailers' websites still show a homepage banner announcing sales up to 70% off – quite the bargain during these challenging times. Although these brands cannot be held accountable for keeping their stores open, issues have been raised in regards to their warehouses' workers.

 

Last week, the British Trade Union (formerly known as the General Municipal Boilermakers, GMB) reported that ASOS workers felt "like rats" in a warehouse they have branded a "cradle of disease." The survey carried out by GMB showed that, out of 4,000 workers in the ASOS Grimethorpe warehouse, 98% of them feel unsafe at work. In fact, where others have shut down business to keep people safe, ASOS has reportedly ramped up their operations in Barnsley. According to GMB, "that warehouse is now processing orders from the company's German warehouse – which has closed – and hundreds of extra staff have been drafted in to deal with the million online orders Asos received over the weekend."

 

There have been reports of no social distancing measures, a complicated clocking-in system that allows large numbers of people gathering in a small area, as well as the same lunch break for hundreds of workers. "It is an infectious centre. You can get the COVID at any given time. Why am I still there? I can't live on 94 pounds per week. I cannot help my family with that. Making money to live is more important than being healthy right now," explained an ASOS worker to GMB. "If one single worker (contracts) coronavirus all warehouse workers (over 3000) we will get. We are not key workers… We are used just for profit," said another worker.

 

Although the company's chief executive Nick Beighton has, since then, responded to the allegations, claiming that what was said was "false" and that ASOS is "striking the right balance between keeping our warehouse operational, for the good of our employees and the wider economy, and maintaining the health and safety of staff, which is always our number one priority."

 

Despite all this, ASOS is not the only fast-fashion retailer accused of not following safety procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Boohoo employee told LancsLive that people are working so closely together they are "breathing in each other's faces" due to the lack of space. "It's crazy. There's 1000 plus staff if one person gets it there, then we all will. They think we are essential and that people need clothes, but that's not the case. They keep putting sales on to boost their sales. That's not looking out for people that's just rubbing salt into the wound," claimed the worker.

 

In New York, Amazon workers walked out of their Staten Island warehouse last week and demanded an increase in protective gear after a few workers tested positive for the virus. Going on strike, the workers claimed insufficient safety precautions and a lack of transparency around coronavirus testing from the company. 

 

In Bangladesh, where the textile business accounts for 80% of the country's exports, factory owners face financial ruin, and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of garment workers are uncertain. "The situation is terrible. The Bangladeshi supply chain is in complete disarray with many foreign brands acting irresponsibly," said the managing director of the Ananta Group, Sharif Zahir, to The New York Times. His company owns seven factories (with a total of 26,000 workers) and supplies many fashion brands, including H&M, Zara, Gap, Levi's and Marks & Spencer.

 

In a time where uncertainty and fear are quickly spreading, brands and individuals everywhere have shown support and offered their help to those in need. However, the emergency has served as a reminder that some brands are still putting profit over people. From a lack of care for sustainability, waste and the environment, to a lack of concern for safety and their workers' wellbeing – online sales are in full force everywhere, and fast-fashion brands are, once again, showing the world the ugly side of fashion.

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