The world of fashion has shifted drastically over twelve months. It is easy to look towards the coronavirus pandemic as a cause to blame for the revelation of fashion’s failures, but that would only be glossing over the deeper systemic issues of the industry. It seems complicated to fully grasp the issues of fashion, simply because of how opaque and inconsequential it appears to be in the larger picture. In this final entry of Read Bettr in 2020, I wish to reiterate why these issues are urgent human issues we have to be aware of.
Across the board, fashion brands that were previously known to be pioneers of the sustainable fashion movement have been called out for doing the bare minimum, profiting on greenwashing and performative inclusivity from loyal customers. Everlane, a sustainable fashion brand known for its price transparency, was called out earlier this year by its employees for union-busting. Ex-employees of Reformation, a fashion brand known for its sustainability-focused marketing, exposed the brand for its racist internal structure and lack of size inclusivity in their product offering. During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, Rent the Runway was busted for its unethical labour regulations that disincentivised their warehouse workers from taking a break from work and that exposed them to the virus in a confined space with no social distancing. Lucy & Yak, a thriving brand in the “sustainable fashion” space, revealed themselves as a brand that lacks self-awareness on racial justice and size inclusivity. The list does go on.
Meanwhile, fast fashion brands continue to do worse things like refusing to pay workers and factories for finished goods, not following their due diligence at meeting payments and selling everything on their site for £0.04 (the equivalent of $0.07 in Singapore) on Black Friday. Nothing seems to stand in their way, not even a global pandemic and lockdown in major cities across the world. It appears to be a year where “sustainable” brands do unsustainable things, and “unsustainable” brands outdo themselves on how much more waste they can create and how much more consumerism they can fuel during the coronavirus pandemic.
Forced labour continues to be a problem, despite the efforts of non-profit organisations pushing to reform the fashion labour force — primarily comprised of underpaid garment workers. In July, The Guardian reported that ‘virtually entire’ fashion industry is complicit in Uighur forced labour in Xinjiang, China. 84% of the global supply of cotton is reliant on the Xinjiang region, supplying factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam that make clothes for international fashion brands like Zara, Muji, Adidas and Calvin Klein.
The same companies have little regard in honouring their payments for completed orders fulfilled by garment factories in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Cambodia. Remake, a non-profit workers rights community kickstarted a ground-up PayUp Fashion campaign to urge fashion brands to stop cancelling orders and pay for completed orders to garment suppliers. Though accelerated by the pandemic, unequal and off-balance power dynamics between brand and garment workers has always been the cause for low wages and delays in payment. Listen firsthand to garment workers’ testimonies on how the pandemic has devastatingly impacted their livelihood through Remake’s PayUp Fashion press conference here.
It’s disheartening and angering. And even disillusioning. Because it once again proves that companies and businesses are not meant to be solution providers to the problems that are caused by companies and businesses. We cannot look at the source of the question for solutions to serve climate and social justice, neither can we fully rely on them to ensure equity and reparations for marginalised communities and garment workers.
Living through the pandemic has revealed to us that no matter the difference in lived experiences, it has been disruptive and emotional. And due to systemic social and economic inequality, the impact of the virus hits harder for some, more than others. This year we tapped into the interdependence of the community, pushing for collective action through our monetary support for small businesses, non-profit organisations and the mutual aid framework.
How do (fashion) consumption and mutual aid intersect, one might ask. As of the 22nd of December, there are 428 tagged posts on Instagram under #waresthrifting; a collective hashtag used to indicate accounts that sell secondhand clothing, cosmetics and books to raise funds for individuals and families in need on a mutual aid spreadsheet. Wares, a library and infospace carved out for communal support and mutual solidarity created this coordination spreadsheet in March this year, and it’s subsequently managed by citizen volunteers and members of the public. Sellers on Instagram voluntarily direct profits made from secondhand sales to people who are in urgent need of financial help. According to a blog post put out by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, a mutual aid framework shifts the narrative from ‘me to we’. Mutual aid exists as a participative process that provides directed, action-based aid. It can do without the consumption of items and has become a way of helping active citizens adopt more equitable models of consumption.
This year has also seen us spend most of our time at home, decluttering and reorganising our living spaces. I’ve personally gone through many phases of cleaning and unhauling of my wardrobe, swapping in unworn clothes at The Fashion Pulpit and donating old high-school T-shirts at Green Square. I’ve gotten used to repeating outfits, wearing clothes I am the most comfortable in and have not bought a single new clothing or footwear item. Only because there is simply no need to buy new. Instead, I find myself spending more time and money on reading fiction, volunteering, picking up new hobbies (pottery!) and paying more attention to my mental health.
In 2021 and beyond, eco buzzwords like “sustainable”, “natural”, “organic” and “eco-friendly” will be reduced to keywords for Search Engine Optimisation. We can only anticipate more fast fashion brands to engage with greenwashing marketing strategies to stay relevant and competitive in the market, as the demand for conscious fashion consumption grows to become more visible. More fast fashion brands will follow the footsteps of Arcadia and Forever 21, going into administration and bankruptcy. The remaining fast fashion giants and luxury fashion brands will carry on with the tried-and-tested, leaving the most vulnerable stakeholders — garment workers — to suffer disproportionately more in a flawed system.
It’s hardly possible to see an end to fashion’s problems. Accountability through legislation will take years to implement when profits and interests reign supreme. On my part as an individual, I wish to continue the ongoing discussion on the deeper systemic issues prevalent across the fashion industry. I also hope to bring forward and dissect topics beyond fashion consumption — a sustainable fashion glossary, book reviews, more #WearIs profiles, the reimagination of local supply chains and community spaces to harness the power of secondhand fashion.
Recommended further reading:
- Lopsided nature of global fashion industry and why change is needed
- It’s time to stop looking at brands to save us
- 5 ways to declutter bettr
- What I don’t miss about fast fashion
- Singapore, we need to talk about sustainability in fashion beyond face value
- The “sustainable” price tag myth
Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.