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Boohoo and the Welfare of Migrant Garment Workers in Leicester

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

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This was originally written as part of my BA English Literature and Politics and has been adapted as a blog post. 

Garment workers have been a long exploited group, with only an estimated 2% paid a living wage worldwide, and significant and regular events of workplace violence and neglect (such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, and more recently workers being forced to work through lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic in unsafe conditions). For migrant garment workers, a large proportion of this workforce worldwide, this precariousness is only increased. 


According to a recent report by NGO Labour Behind the Label - which the Ethical Trading Initiative stated it ‘believes to be an accurate summary of the challenges facing the industry’ -  the average wage of garment workers in Leicester is only £3 per hour, well below the National Minimum wage. Irregular migrant workers have been reported to be paid even less, with some cases at just £1 per hour. Government policies such as the ‘hostile environment’ result in the removal of the agency of migrant workers to challenge their employers and as they are unable to bring formal complaints against their employers, unionise or ask for support from their MPs for fear of being arrested or deported. Migration status therefore affects the workers’ conditions greatly as factory owners are able to further reduce the working conditions and wages without receiving any legal consequences.  


Additionally, young women are overrepresented this area, with women aged 18-24 making up 80% of garment workers worldwide, meaning most are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as a result of the intersection of their gender and migrant status. 


The UK’s garment factories are mostly concentrated in Leicester. There are several fast fashion brands who dominate the Leicester factories, notably Boohoo Group Ltd., which sources 80% of its stock from Leicester and accounts for an estimated 80% of the total production in the city (a figure which increased from 60-70% during the first few weeks of the pandemic). The issue of garment workers’ rights, particularly migrant garment workers’ rights, has been raised to authorities and the government many times in recent years and has been largely ignored. Home Secretary Priti Patel based this lack of response on “cultural sensitivities” and authorities not acting for fear of being ‘labeled as racist’ despite it being her job to uphold the law.


These issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which raised the issue to as a part of a wider public health crisis. Garment workers being forced to continue to work throughout the first national lockdown has been closely associated with Leicester becoming the first area in the UK to be put into local lockdown. The welfare of migrant garment workers in the UK is therefore a crucial part of policy within the government’s COVID-19 response which also affects the local population drastically. This similarly impacts the British state through the loss of tax income, as these migrants’ employment is undocumented and reported. Indeed, one factory has already been charged with a tax avoidance strategy. If factories’ finances were closely monitored and workers’ paid ethical wages, tax could be more accurately collected. 


Main image source from LBTL 2020 report


Context


The specifics of the migrant garment worker population in Leicester are mostly uncertain, due to the irregular nature of their immigration status and illegal practices of employers. However, as there are one thousand known garment factories in Leicestereach having around ten to twenty-five workers and roughly 33.6% of these workers are migrants, it can be estimated that there are anywhere between 3,300 - 8,300 migrants working in Leicester’s garment sector. That means migrant garment workers make up 0.94-2.3% of Leicester’s overall population of 355,218.

              

Similarly, the exact nature of their migration is also uncertain, although we have some rough information. For example, many migrant garment workers are irregular, however this has diverse meanings. Some have arrived irregularly, while others are in the UK regularly but do not have the right to work, so became irregular migrants once they started work in these factories. This emphasis on the right to work highlights that while migrant garment workers in Leicester voluntarily for economic reasons, others may be part of other groups, such as asylum seekers, who do not have the right to work in the UK until and if they gain refugee status. It is this irregular status which has significant impact on migrant garment workers and the wider effects of such treatment. 


There are various reasons why garment workers may migrate to work in Leicester (if they are migrating voluntarily) including better legal protections for workers in the UK, such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and a higher minimum wage than in other garment producing countries. For example, the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 8,000 takas a month, the equivalent of 85 euros. A worker could earn the same amount after less than nine hours on the UK National Minimum wage of £8.72 per hour. However, these legal protections are not always enforced and therefore do not meet the expectations of migrant workers. Indeed, Leicester has been referred to as being outside UK employment law.


It is also important to highlight the wider global context of the garment industry amid the Covid-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic many fashion brands withheld payment from suppliers for orders which had already been placed and, in many cases, had already been produced or partly produced, leaving many garment workers and their dependents without an income. This sparked public outcry and the start of non-profit Remake’s #PayUp campaign, which remains ongoing over nine months after its launch.


Critique of Policy


The unethical working conditions and breaches of employment law in garment factories in Leicester have been known for several years and been reported on several times in the past decade, in so far as the exploitation in the city has been referred to several times as ‘an open secret’. These include reports by BBC and Channel 4 in 2010 and 2017, a 2015 report by University of Leicester and ETI, and later the issue being brought directly to the UK Government through the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability in February 2019. Despite these reports and awareness of the issue, the UK Government has done very little in direct response to migrant garments workers in Leicester. NGO Fashion Revolution highlights how ‘[m]inisters essentially rejected each and every recommendation in the [Fixing Fashion] report, often citing alternatives courses of action for the issues in question, without committing to any tangible policies’. By responding to the report in a vague and non-committal way, the Government ‘appears to be concerned and engaged,’ yet there is no policy change being made at all. Home Secretary Priti Patel has stated that the reason many of these illegal factories have not been investigated is due to ‘cultural insensitivities’. This highlights how the Government’s willingness to act on this issue, either through the creation of new policies or the enforcement of pre-existing policies, is due to the cultural and ethnic background of this group of migrants.


Whilst there have been no direct policies made in regards to this migrant demographic, there are two main areas of policy which do impact them: immigration policy and labour policy. The most notable aspects of these policies are the ‘hostile environment policy’ – a campaign against irregular immigration which began in 2012 and includes legislation such as the Immigration Act 2014 and Immigration Act 2016 - and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. These policies are in tension with each other, as the Modern Slavery Act 2015 seeks to uphold human rights and dignity of workers, whereas the ‘hostile environment policy’ seeks to remove that dignity in a ‘race to the bottom’ in order to deter (officially irregular) immigrants from coming to or staying in the UK.


The ‘hostile environment policy’ is key to the welfare of migrant garment workers in Leicester, as it is a key driver in the deterioration in working conditions of migrant garment workers in Leicester, and as a consequence also impacting on the working conditions of garment workers who are British citizens. The main aim of this policy is to ‘deny illegal immigrants access to work, housing and services, even bank accounts’, and as a result deter them from immigrating to the UK or force them to return to their country of origin. 


This policy means that irregular migrants are at a higher risk of exploitation and abuse as they frequently feel unable to come forward to report their exploitation or bring their employers to court for the fear that they will be incarcerated, separated from their families, or deported. Similarly, it means that irregular migrant workers are more likely to accept illegal wages where payment is cash-in-hand in order avoid official channels where they may be arrested by authorities. There have also been cases where factory owners have held documents proving that someone has the right to work in the UK from their employees, meaning that although they are regular migrants they have lost the means to prove so and would thus likely be treated by authorities as if they were irregular. Garment factories have frequently been the subject of immigration raids.  This further increases psychological trauma for the workers as well as heighten their anxiety around coming into contact with authorities. There are also migrant workers who, although they are in the UK regularly, do not have the entitlement to work and thus become irregular migrants through this decision to work. This would suggest that it is likely there are some migrant garment workers who are also asylum seekers – an already incredibly vulnerable group who are dependent on the government for their entire welfare and survival. Indeed, a state’s labour market can be seen as a key component of aiding integration, as a way for migrants to meet locals, make friends, foster a sense of belonging, learn about local attitudes and culture, and contribute to the economy.


These effects of these policies have not been uniform. The degree to which workers are affected is dependent on their migrant status, gender, and educational background (especially in terms of their English language abilities). As has already been established, migrant status is key due to the impacts of the ‘hostile environment policy’, first implemented in 2012. The causes of this restrictive policy are quite diverse, and are can be seen as echoing public anti-immigrant sentiment, as evidenced by Dempster and Hargrave (2017, 10), who highlight that the UK public has often favoured restrictive policies. This sentiment can be seen as exacerbated through the effects of the 2008 financial crash, Brexit, and the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the threat perception of immigration is thought to be a state of the nation issue, and the nation is undeniably in severe crisis. 


The impacts of the lack of response are felt more acutely depending on gender. As women are also much more likely to be discriminated against as a result of pregnancy, and are also subject to increased risk of sexual harassment and assault. Any reporting measures they could have taken have been made inaccessible to them as a result of the hostile environment and their likely precarious status. This is especially relevant as the garment industry has a very gendered workforce.


In addition to the issues caused by the ‘hostile environment policy,’ there are intersecting issues caused by the enforcement of the labour policies such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015. There have been concerns ‘raised by the Public Accounts Committee that the Government does not monitor whether statements made under the Modern Slavery Act comply with the legislation and has never used its powers to penalize companies that do not comply’. Without effective enforcement, the Modern Slavery Act cannot achieve its main aim ‘to tackle slavery, servitude, forced labour and human trafficking’. This affects all workers in the UK, not only migrant garment workers, however this demographic are more vulnerable to employers exploiting this lack of enforcement. This lack of enforcement of this law means that exploitation is normalized, not only for migrant workers but local workers too.


The Government’s response to this issue has also had previously unseen effects on the security of this group of migrants through the way they have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, it emerged that garment factories in Leicester had been open throughout the first national lockdown along with numerous reports of furlough fraud, workers being forced to come into work while sick with COVID-19, workers wishing to isolate being denied pay, factories operating illegally throughout lockdown, and of workers being forced to work in conditions of modern slavery’. This has been linked by many parties, including NGOs, campaigners and politicians, to Leicester having high rates of COVID-19 earlier on in the year and being the first city to go into lockdown. Indeed, as people from ethnic minorities, particularly South Asian people, are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 - largely as a result socioeconomic factors such as the ability for workers to stay at home, housing quality, geographic location (e.g. in urban areas), this means that garment workers in Leicester are also disproportionately impacted as most are from ethnic minorities and a significant proportion of migrant garment workers in the city are from South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan


Had the UK Government taken the appropriate measures in 2019, when the Fixing Fashion report was brought to them, to ensure that garment factories in Leicester were complying with ethical standards of working and that brands, such as those in the Boohoo Group, were more transparent about the standards in their supply chains, their subsequent COVID-19 control strategy may have been more effective in the city and surrounding areas. By acting to support migrant worker populations in the UK and ensure safe working conditions, the health and safety of the local population is also more protected. 


Conclusions 


Migrant status is key to the labour conditions of migrant garment workers in Leicester as the restrictive policies included as part of the hostile environment prevent them from participating in unions, from reporting their working conditions to authorities, from appealing their wages, etc., for the fear they would be deported. As many of these workers are women, they are similarly unable to report incidents of sexual harassment or even assault in their workplaces for the same reasons. This therefore removes them of their agency. The perceived cultural differences of this migrant group are also a key factor in the lack of action by local authorities and national government, for the fear of being perceived as ‘racist’ and not being a seen as a priority compared to British citizens.


Policy Recommendations


  • Change policies of the 'hostile environment' which mean that public bodies (NHS, social services, etc.) would no longer be obliged to report irregular migrants to authorities and are able to offer their services fully. This would reduce the fear linked with accessing healthcare  and would reduce the absolute power many garment factory owners in Leicester have over their migrant employees.
  • Change the law so that asylum seekers have the right to work and kept separate from their asylum status – this has the potential to reduce the number of migrant garment workers working irregularly and therefore provides them with the opportunity to challenge exploitative practises of their employers without the fear of having their asylum claim denied or being deported back to the country they have fled.
  •  There are several legislative options to tackling the working conditions within fashion supply chains. One is a ‘Fit to Trade’ licensing scheme proposed by the British Retail Consortium and put to the Home Secretary in an open letter with signatories including many parliamentarians, as well as organisations from business, civil society and investors. This would ensure a minimum standard of protection for workers and have an emphasis on protecting legitimate and ethical businesses in the sector.
  •  In addition to this, new legislation needs to be created to ensure full transparency across all supply chains.  This would include details of working conditions and pay levels, names of suppliers and factory owners, and the date the brand last carried out an inspection of the production site. This would include severe fines for brands found to have modern slavery in their supply chains or who do not publish their supply chains, encouraging them to be more transparent and strict with their suppliers. A precedent has been set for this in new proposals put out by the Foreign Office that would impose sanctions on brands who are found to be buying and producing goods in the Uighur region of China. Making supply chains mandatorily transparent, similar instances of modern slavery better hidden elsewhere in the UK would be discovered and forced to change, in addition to holding factories account globally.
  •  New legislation should also ensure that all garment factories are registered with local authorities so that they can be more closely monitored.
  • Ensure that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is enforced by ensuring that all brands, factories and producers are in compliance with ethical standards both in terms of pay and working conditions. For example, one method could be surprise inspections. This does not only apply to the fashion industry, but across all sectors. This could come in the form of new legislation similar to the new draft EU human rights due diligence law published this year/
  •  Create a more explicit hierarchy in who is responsible for dealing with these issues of exploitation. This would create less confusion between bodies such as the local police, local authorities, Home Office and CPS and provide clear means of holding both businesses and relevant public bodies to account for the oversight of these issues.
  • Increase the living wage and enforce it as a new minimum wage, so that consumers are less reliant on products produced through exploitative and slave labour.
  • In line with the UK Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency in May 2019, to change public messaging around consumerism, to encourage members of the public to buy less and use more, therefore shifting from ‘fast fashion’ to ‘slow fashion’ and reducing the pressure on garment suppliers to produce thousands of new garments a day.
  • Change the way local authorities and police forces check the compliance of COVID-19 regulations, so that there are in-person inspections (with full PPE) to ensure all workers are safely distanced, all bodies are complying with lockdowns when they are in place, and to prove the legitimacy of furlough claims.



If you like my work and have learned something from it, please consider helping support me (so I have more time to write posts and articles like these!) by buying me a virtual cuppa


If you liked this post you might like: 5 Easy Ways You Can Show Support to Garment Workers

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July 2021 | Monthly Wrap Up

Friday, 30 July 2021

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AD – PR product, one book mentioned in this post were sent to me by publishers. These are marked **

 

July has mostly been relaxing and boy has that been needed.



Favourite part?


I started off the month finishing off my internship at Goodstrangevibes, and with a chill evening spent with friend around a fire in my yard. I then headed back down South to meet my family to go on our summer holiday. As a result of some weird happenings with train tickets when I booked, the first class tickets were cheaper than standard so I had a great time. I’ve never been in First Class before and it took me a while to realise the food and drink the staff were offering was free, but once I realised it was I certainly made the most of it. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for future First Class discounts!

 

I spent a week on a narrow boat with my family going up and down the Llangollen Canal. I’d not been very far north in Wales before despite being Welsh, the furthest north I’d been was Aberystwyth, so it was great to explore new areas of my home country. It was a lovely time to switch off, enjoy nature, listen to the birds, and gently chug along the water. I felt quite relaxed by the end and had a chance to read four great books (read on to find out about those!). 


 

When I got back, I spent lots of quality time with my cat, read some more, and saw some friends I’d not seen in ages! Including a visit down to Bournemouth to see a friend and have a lush swim in the sea. 

 

I then travelled down to Pembrokeshire to visit my grandparents. I was so excited as I’d not been home in so long, but I got an alert from the NHS app on the train about half an hour away from my final stop telling me I’d been in contact with someone who had Covid and needed to isolate as soon as possible. This put a slight dent in my plans for spending the rest of the heatwave at the beach and in the sea, but I still had a lovely week and a bit. I spent the majority of the time sitting in my grandparents’ garden reading lots of books, eating lots of fruit and spending time with their dog. There are certainly much worse places and ways to isolate and I’m lucky it didn’t really disrupt my life (the joys of being currently unemployed!). 



I am writing this on my last day of isolation, but on the final couple of days I have left I plan to spend at the beach, swimming in the sea, going for walks in new areas I’ve not explored before, and catching up with old friends. 

 

I also had my first paid article published this month! It’s on a very personal topic and while it was scary to have out there I know it’s so worthwhile if just one person feels better as a result of reading it. 


Best read?


I have read a lot this month. Like, a lot. 11 books in fact. It’s been so nice to have total freedom in what I read now that I have finished my degree. Well, not completely now that I’m starting another degree but at least in that one I decide the books I’m studying!

 

I started off by finished Sex & Rage by Eve Babitz**. I then read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which I’ve ad on my shelf for several months and I absolutely loved! I thought the characters were fascinating and didn’t want to put it down.

 

If I had to pick one book that I read this month that I want everyone to read it would be What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri. This book is game-changing. I learned so much and rethought so many things while reading this book. Primarily about how capitalist and colonial ideologies are so ingrained in us that many of our current movements, including current anti-racist movements, are still very much framed within the capitalist system. I beg you to read this book!

 


I then read Because of You by Dawn French and Those Who Can, Teach by Andria Zafirakou in one day. That’s what a canal boat holiday gave me, two books per day! Honestly loved both of these books. Those Who Can, Teach was just incredible. It’s groundbreaking. I heard about it through Andria Zafirakou and her book in her interview on All the Small Things podcast, where Venetia La Manna described this as the ‘This is Going to Hurt’ for the education sector. This book is a call to action for change in the British education system and is damning of our government. It also gave me so much hope though, knowing there are teachers like Andria out there, and made me reflect on my own education, which straddled two countries and a total of four schools before I went to uni.


 

When I got back from holiday I read Out of Love by Hazel Hayes, another one I’ve had for months but not been able to read because of uni work! I loved it, it was quite an easy read and quite comforting in a way as well. 

 

And of course what better thing to do in isolation than catching up on reading?! I read five books in the week I was isolating so I managed to plough through a fair few… I started off with Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi which was beautiful, simply, and devastating. Loved it and would highly recommend! I then finished A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister which I’d started on the last few days on the Llangollen Canal. Again, incredible. This book is so informative and funny, perfect for someone who’s as nerdy about sex and sex history as I am! 

 

I then read Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes by Dana Thomas, an interesting read I couldn’t help comparing to Stitched Up but those books are quite different in their approaches to the issue of fast fashion. More discussion on this one from me to come! 

 

Next, I read Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer – a fun mystery crime novel related to my Master’s. It certainly helped get me hyped for that!

 

Finishing off my isolation reads was We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book gave me a crisis about the climate crisis. I had to keep telling myself not to doom and organise instead and did feel better near the end of the book! This book is a must read for anyone who lives on the planet right now, especially if you live in the Global North. It’s a game-changer. It’s devastating, heartfelt, informative, panicky, and questioning. It also has a whole lot of nuanced discussion on the individual vs collective action and ugh, I loved it. I’ll be thinking about it for a good while and you can bet you’ll see it popping up in a few future blog posts. 



Favourite listen?


I’ve been listening to a couple of new podcasts: Idealistically and Drilled. Idealistically is hosted by Tolmeia Gregory discussing climate justice and the ideal worlds we want to see and live in. It’s a joy to listen to and fills me with a lot of hope! Drilled also discusses climate justice but focuses more on the histories and actions of oil companies and how they engineered the creation of climate denial and greenwashing and have been knowingly putting profit over climate for over 50 years. It is a groundbreaking series and while I haven’t yet finished the first series (there are six overall) I have learned so much. I urge you to listen to Drilled. 

 

Music wise, I’ve been listening to Lover by Taylor Swift constantly. This album reminds me so much of summer and gives me so much energy. It may be my favourite Taylor Swift album. Genius I tell you! I’ve also been continuing to listen to Blue by Joni Mitchell. Another chef’s kiss of an album. 


Image source

Favourite watch?


I’ve watched a tad more YouTube this month. Hold your horses, not that much, but I’ve been watching some of Jack Edwards’ videos, as well as catching up on a lot of The Take’s videos. 


What did I learn?


I can rest properly and I need to get out in nature more. That’s not necessarily something new to me but more of a reminder. 


What’s happening next month?


Hopefully a couple of friends will be coming up to visit me, and hopefully I won’t have any more isolations!

 

I will also be doing my best to be writing a lot, whether that’s prepping blog posts for you or pitching and writing articles for other publications. I’m hoping to keep these fingers typing!

 

As well as writing, I’ll be continuing my job search to try and secure something part time before my master’s starts near the end of September. Speaking of, if you want to hire me for consulting on environmental and labour ethics issues in the fashion industry, for copywriting, or are a brand interested in featuring on Another Ranting Reader or my social media, send me an email! 


What’s been on my mind?


Books, the unbearable heat, the ever-looming threat of climate disaster and an increasing totalitarian government. You know, the usual. 


Favourite post?


5 Greenwashing Campaigns Trying to Fool You is my favourite post this month! This one was in the works for a while and took a fair bit of time researching and putting together. And also took a while to narrow down which campaigns I could discuss – so many brands are doing horrendous greenwashing at the moment there was ample choice! 



Biggest inspiration?


Seeing people taking action. One big example being the protests and rallies outside the Scottish Parliament over the proposed new plans for the Cambo oil fields. If you want to get involved in the campaign against these proposals, check out these links


Any other favourites?


Does slowing down count? I don’t know whether it should but hey! I’m going to say it counts. I’ve had several things that had forced me to take things slower this month, whether that’s being on a canal boat or having to isolate and to be fair it’s almost definitely been good for me. ‘Slowing down’ has been a theme in my life for the past couple of years, and this is something I’m really trying to improve on. We’re not here for the burnout and internalised capitalism! 



If you like my work and have learned something from it, please consider helping support me (so I have more time to write posts and articles like these!) by buying me a virtual cuppa



If you liked this post you might like: June 2021 | Monthly Wrap Up

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5 Greenwashing Campaigns Trying to Fool You

Friday, 23 July 2021

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Greenwashing is everywhere in the fashion industry. Well, every industry. But fashion is a particular offender. The entire business model of fast fashion is inherently unsustainable, based on the exploitation of poor women in previously colonised countries and of the environment. To continue to appeal to their consumer bases in a time of ever-worsening climate crisis, damaging brands resort to greenwashing. I briefly touched on this in a previous blog post (and will go into it in more detail in a future post) but for those of you who don’t know, greenwashing is essentially a brand lying about their ethics, spending more money on the marketing of their ‘sustainable image’ than making their brand actually sustainable. This is often a focus on ‘organic’ materials while completely leaving out the working conditions of the people (mostly women) who make their clothes. 

 

Greenwashing can be difficult to see through especially now that some of the brands have had many years of practise and have literally billions of pounds to pour into this façade. Hopefully this post will help you out at least a little bit! I’ve left out the OG Fashion Greenwashers, H&M (with their ironically named Conscious Collection) as this is a brand who are regularly called out for their greenwashing, but it’s important that we remember that so many other brands are guilty of this too. Although, still, f*ck H&M.


For credits of image used in title, see images used separately below


1. George Cares


Reader, George does not in fact ‘care’. They really, genuinely, do not care. About you, about their workers, or about the environment. 

 

The ‘George Cares’ campaign doesn’t have any specific products attached to it, and is more of a general overview of how George wants to be perceived. Their website has a few flashy pictures and information about various initiatives they’re a part of, including some things which are undeniably good – like the phasing out of sandblasting, boycott of Uzbek cotton over child labour, and zero tolerance policy on incineration. However, they do not provide enough detail for us to know the accuracy of these statements. Their supply chain must be massive, and they need to be able to tell us every aspect of it. Similarly, other bits of information mentioned on this website, that they clear want us to congratulate and clap them on the back for, are things that really are a bit average and frankly not good enough. For instance, the discuss how they are ‘committed to ensuring all our own-brand clothing and soft home textile products will be responsibly sourced’ and that they ‘are committed to sourcing 100% of our polyester with a minimum of 30% recycled content by 2025’. The final sentence I’ve cited here particularly doesn’t really make any sense. The ‘100%’ in this sentence seems a bit useless if you ask me. What they seem to be saying is that in the next 3.5 years between now and 2025 they only aim to have a third of their polyester as recycled material. A material that is made from fossil fuels and which they acknowledge is harming the planet in many ways including microfibers. A lot of fancy wording and pictures but they’re not telling us anything of substance. Similarly, there is nothing in this particular statement, supposedly on their commitment to responsible sourcing, that mentions the workers within their supply chain. 

 

Elsewhere on their website, they highlight Salvation Army as one of their charity partners. On the surface this may seem good, but Salvation Army have had many reported incidents of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people seeking to access their services. Again, I will ask, who exactly does George care about?  

 

George has been ASDA’s own fashion brand since 1990, and was the first supermarket clothing brand. ASDA in turn is owned by the American corporation Walmart, having been bought out in 1999. Walmart, apparently ‘the world’s biggest retailer’ is notorious for its horrifying ethics. From bribery, slavery, and prison labour (see Ava DuVerney’s 13th for more on this last one), Walmart has seen them all. It always seems like the more I look the more the Walmart ethics spiral continues. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their reputation, Walmart were one of the main names who came up in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. This factory collapse killed +1,334 people (most of them women), injured over 2,000 more and left over 800 children orphaned. It is the worst industrial disaster in the fashion industry’s history and was completely preventable. With such an exploitative history, who could be surprised that Walmart received 16/100 points by Remake in their Brand Directory. 

 

 In 2020, Walmart sold part of their shares in ASDA so they no longer have majority ownership, but still maintain significant shares and profit greatly from George and ASDA products more generally. George is by no means ethical.


2. Recycled by Pretty Little Thing

 

We know that simply recycling, while good, will not solve the climate crisis. Instead, we need a circular economy which reduce waste and keeps materials in use. What we do not need is the ridiculously high rates of consumption encouraged by brands like PLT with their 99% off sales as we saw near the end of 2020. This range comprises of only 250 items, whereas on their ‘New In’ page, PLT lists over 2089 items. You read that right, 2089 ITEMS! That means that their recycled range is less than 10% of their ‘New In’ items, and even less of their overall stock. Come on PLT, we can see past your lies. 

 

Pretty Little Thing are owned by Boohoo, a company that is probably number one on my hit list. Boohoo may be a relatively newer brand compared to some high street shops, but they are one of the absolute worst when it comes to workers’ rights and their environmental impact. Boohoo have had multiple ‘exposes’ relating to their maltreatment of workers and are now notorious for their unethical practices and environmental harm. One of the most recent exposes came in June 2020 after the organisation Labour Behind the Label (the UK’s branch of the Clean Clothes Campaign) published a report on Boohoo’s actions during the first stages of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, it was not good. 

 

This report is damning in so many ways. The main takeaway though is that Boohoo were forcing potentially thousands of garment workers to go into unsafe factories to work throughout the first (and probably second) lockdown. In my opinion, they are responsible for Leicester being the first area in the UK to go into a lockdown. That’s not confirmed by anyone, but again, that’s just my personal opinion. In addition to this, these workers were paid an average of £3.50/hour, with that average dropping to as low as £1.50 for migrant workers. Boohoo source 80% of their stock from factories in Leicester, an area where they account for an estimated 80% of all factories in the city. During the pandemic they increased their factory use from an estimated 60-70%. In garment terms, they dominate the city’s industry. That’s a lot of power. There’s a lot in that report that simply won’t fit in a blog post. I highly encourage you to give it a read. 

 

Additionally, PLT also have a gender pay gap of 29%. For context, the average gender pay gap in the UK is 17%. This pay gap only accounts for the workers in their head offices, rather than their whole supply chain. Can you imagine how high that would be if everyone contributing to PLT’s clothes was counted in that statistic?!

 

As a general summary of all this exploitation, Boohoo (and from them PLT and other subsidiary companies such as Nasty Gal, MissPap, Karen Millen, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, etc. as well) received 3/100 points from Remake – there’s no way they can claim that’s good. 

 

Recently, PLT and Boohoo in general has amped up their greenwashing efforts, with outrageous posts from Nasty Gal and Boohoo coming out in the past few weeks. We see behind the façade Boohoo!


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3. Primark Cares


Do you remember a few months ago when Laura Whitmore shared that Instagram post about how Primark were actually really ethical and cared about the environment? Yep, everything in that post wasn’t true, and the announcement of her new title as Primark Cares Ambassador kicked off this smokescreen of a campaign. While her claims that ‘Sustainability should be accessible to all!’ is absolutely correct, providing Primark as the solution to this problem is more than misguided (and they’re not the solution either! See what I did there? Ah I make myself laugh…).

 

Primark were one of the brands who were most associated with the Rana Plaza disaster. They have also been associated with many other workers’ rights incidents and haven’t shown signs of wanting to make meaningful change in their supply chains. After the Rana Plaza factory collapse, Primark became one of the signatories of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which made basic health and safety measures legally-binding. The Accord is due to expire on 31 August, nearly a mont’s time, and Primark have not yet committed to renewing the Accord. As I just mentioned, the Accord ensures the basic necessities to keep garment workers in Bangladesh alive. In order to back up any kind of claim that they ‘care’, Primark must commit to renewing the Accord. 

 

At the beginning of 2021, a military coup occurred in Myanmar, and there has since been a string of continuing violence, with garment workers at the frontlines of resistance. Garment workers in the country directly called for brands to boycott the state in a stand against the new regime, calling to sacrifice their own jobs for their cause. In March 2021 it was reported that one of Primark’s supplying factories in Myanmar had locked their workers inside the factory to prevent them from taking part in the protests against the regime.  

 

In Remake’s Brand Directory, Primark scores 25/100. While better than brands like PLT, George and Urban Outfitters, the bar is hardly particularly high. If we took these brands as the unethical standard for other brands to be compared to, the bar would barely exist. 

 

And what is it with brands using the word ‘Cares’ in their campaigns? Stop, we know you really don’t give a shit! It just seems patronising to me…


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4. Urban Renewal


Brands like Urban Outfitters and Free People (which are both owned by the same parent company, URBN) may seem like they’re a bit hippy, a bit edgy, and up to date with popular progressive ideologies, and yet they are a brand who crop up time and time again when it comes to ethics scandals and seem to have no inclination to do anything about them.

 

Not only have they still not paid their garment workers for orders placed at the beginning of the pandemic over 16 months ago, but they also have a history of cultural appropriation (for instance when they were sued by the Navajo Nation for using their cultural symbols) and their CEO Richard Haynes has donated thousands to a homophobic and anti-abortion Senator. In the Remake Brand Directory, they scored a measly 3 points out of a potential 100, putting them on par with the likes of Pretty Little Thing. That is simply not acceptable. With all this happening in their supply chain they have the gall to call themselves sustainable. Where exactly is the ‘Renewal’ in Urban and its sister companies? 

 

Urban Renewal currently comprises of 659 products. This is compared to 2946 items in their Women’s section and 1427 products in the Men’s section. That’s nearly 22% of the overall women’s section and 46% of the men’s. Urban, why not make it 100%?

 

Similarly, when you look at the fabrics of all of these products, Urban give the description of ‘100% Vintage Fibres’. This incredibly vague description makes it difficult for anyone wanting to be able to care for their clothes properly. It says to hand-wash but even then, we know the washing advice on a level probably and they’d probably be fine to go through a washing machine if done properly, especially if we know what the damn material is! The whole point in sustainability and of clothing ‘renewal’ is to extend the life of a garment so that the impact of its creation is reduced and the work of the person who made it is valued. Its life will not be extended for very long if its owner cannot care for it correctly. 


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5. Everlane

 

Yes, I do mean their entire brand not one specific campaign. Don’t get me wrong, Everlane are really not as bad as the other brands on this list (they are marked 45/100 by Remake), but just because they’re a bit more ethical doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held to account. In fact, if they claim to be one of the good guys, I think they should be monitored more closely so that they don’t succumb to the lures of fast fashion. If companies are calling themselves one of the good ones, we need to know that they actually are just that. Remake and other organisations highlight how the brand aren’t doing enough, especially when they market themselves as an ethical and sustainable frontrunner. In an article published in December 2020, Remake marked Everlane as one of fashion’s worst greenwashers. Yikes, that’s a title you do not want. 

 

In the pandemic, not only were they one of the brands consistently targeted by the #PayUp campaign, they have also had many union issues relating to lay-offs and union-busting. Their laid-off workers were even supported by Bernie Sanders. Everlane’s main issues is workers’ rights. They have a lot about ‘sustainable’ materials on their website but go into very little detail on their workers. We need to know what their working conditions are like, exactly how much they’re paid, and if they get things like maternity and sick leave. Until all of those details and more are provided, Everlane cannot claim ‘Radical Transparency’.


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