Too close to home: the cost of fast fashion in the UK

Updated: Feb 8, 2021


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If you asked most people to imagine a sweatshop, the image that comes to mind would almost always be one based in Asia. I can’t imagine that many, when faced with a description of “squalid conditions with boarded windows, cramped workers and blocked fire escapes”, as well as wages as low as £3.50, would guess that this would all be taking place in the UK city of Leicester.

While the dangerous side effects of fast fashion have been preached for years now, never has the debate raged so fiercely in front-page news. Boohoo PLC, parent company of brands such as PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal and Miss Pap, and primary buyer from these factories, has seen its share price drop by 18%, as well as having its products dropped from retail sites Asos and Next.

But the question that this poses is: why now? Why is it that people seem so much more outraged to find out that this is happening in their own country than on the other side of the world?

There is a widespread assumption that the toxic side-effects of the fast fashion industry only affect those in the developing world. Many make the inherently racist assumption that the UK and other Western countries are too progressive for such cruel and inhumane working conditions. This scandal proves, however, that this could not be further from the truth.

One of the focal points of this expose has been workers’ wages more than half that of the UK’s minimum wage. But for those without the right to live or work here, pay is as little as £1 an hour. For context, that’s half the minimum wage found in Shenzhen, China. Thulsi Narayanasamy, who has visited Leicester’s factories, told The Guardian: “I’ve been inside garment factories in Bangladesh, China and Sri Lanka, and I can honestly say that what I saw in the middle of the UK was worse than anything I’ve witnessed overseas”.

One thing the Boohoo scandal has made clear is how the fast fashion industry predominantly affects, and indeed preys on, those from immigrant backgrounds, of which Leicester’s garment worker-base is predominantly comprised. The problem has been perpetuated by both local and central government’s lack of action; despite multiple reports that this abuse has been an “open secret” for years, they have instead chosen to focus on immigration raids, according to Dominique Muller, author of Labour Behind the Label’s report, who explained that this has “made vulnerable workers more fearful of speaking out.”

While Boohoo themselves have testified that they had no idea about the poor conditions, workers disagree. One factory foreman told The Times that “these motherf***ers know how to exploit people like us. They make profits like hell and pay us in peanuts.” This, of course, highlights the underlying issue. While workers are being paid as little as £3.50 an hour, Boohoo boss Mahmud Kamani and CEO John Lyttle are set to receive £50 million and £1.04 million bonuses, respectively. Other senior executives can expect a pay rise of 18-30%.

Of course, this scandal can’t be a big surprise, considering Boohoo’s impossibly cheap prices. Labour Behind the Label’s report found “a recent order for around 1 million pairs of cycling shorts to be made in Leicester... The price offered was £1.80 per unit – including clothing production, factory overheads, packaging, labelling and delivery costs.” One industry source explained that “it is impossible to produce the units/garments requested by Boohoo for the product price and pay workers the national minimum wage.”

While we should have all been able to infer this information, I’m ashamed to admit that I did not. I have purchased clothes before from Boohoo’s subsidiaries without ever really stopping to give any thought about how they were being made. However, as someone who has lived in Leicester for the past ten years it’s extremely discomforting to find out that this has been going on in my home city. Faced with the revelation of the abysmal ways in which Boohoo has treated members of my own community, I won’t be supporting the company anymore.

I hope that others will follow suit; that faced with the uncomfortable reality of how our shopping habits damage the lives of those around us, we will see a widespread boycott. But still the thought persists: would I give the same level of concern to companies that outsource their labour to elsewhere? Undoubtedly the Boohoo scandal has only received widespread media attention because it is something that is happening in our own country.

Clearly we still have a long way to go, but I hope that, for both myself and others, we can apply the outrage we feel about Boohoo to fast fashion companies treating workers in other countries with equal disdain.


Main image: The Times

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