It’s Monday night around midnight and after an hour of feeling restless, you give in and begin mindlessly scrolling through Instagram — a place where fast-fashion brands commonly market their clothing through influencers. You won’t have to scroll for too long until you see a model with an hourglass figure wearing a classic crop top and high-waisted black bike shorts. These trendy outfits are a trademark for Fashion Nova, a brand that has quickly gained popularity on Instagram as they have 18.7 million followers and counting.
In addition to Fashion Nova, there are other large companies that have embraced these cheap, rapidly-changing consumer trends and are, hence, labeled as “fast-fashion” brands. A few of the popular companies that promote fast fashion include Urban Outfitters, H&M and Zara.
These fast-fashion brands are a prevalent part of the global garment industry, which has been greatly impacted due to COVID-19. During the initial rise of the coronavirus, 1,025 factories associated with H&M reported cancellations of 864.17 million units of work orders, which together are worth around $2.81 billion. These cancellations are not only detrimental to the company but also create uncertainty in the lives of the garment workers, leaving them vulnerable.
Due to the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy, it has become difficult to find jobs that pay well. Because of this difficulty, it is reasonable for workers to accept any job they can find regardless of the level of pay. This murky situation causes these workers to become stuck in this field of work, further exacerbating the existing humanitarian crises surrounding garment workers in certain countries.
Furthermore, the garment workers in Bangladesh are facing a greater concern than the coronavirus itself: hunger. An article published by NPR follows the story of Sampa Akter, a garment worker who financially supports her parents, sister and disabled brother. When the factory reopened after a lockdown, Akter’s manager promised that the workers would be “paid 60% of [their] salaries for the days [they] missed” but these payments will likely stop completely. The manager explained that the workers would not be paid for much longer due to the cease of global orders. For these workers, a lack of income is more detrimental than the rapid-spreading virus. Akter continues to say that, without a steady income, she “[will] die of hunger before [she dies] of this virus.” Her powerful statement illuminates the extent to which people are still struggling with humanitarian crises.
Being a highly populous country, Bangladesh has been facing difficulties after the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017. This event caused 902,000 refugees to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Action Against Hunger, a nonprofit organization, describes the effects of this crisis as creating a “lack of food security, cramped living conditions, and lack of hygiene.” Not only has this event affected the refugees, but it also created suffering within the host communities. The chaos sparked a devastating issue for all groups living in Bangladesh: high rates of malnutrition.
Although the issues of hunger and the coronavirus both prevail, there are Bangladeshi workers that have to make hunger a priority. Despite the lack of proper health protocols, workers like Akter are still willing to risk contracting COVID-19 in order to support their families. Although this issue is prevalent in developing countries like Bangladesh, garment workers in the state of California are facing similar issues in terms of harmful working conditions.
If these companies lose support and money, then all of their workers would lose their jobs, exacerbating what is already a difficult situation because of the repercussions of COVID-19.
In March of this year, there was a forced closure of a Los Angeles Apparel factory. Although this company was manufacturing face masks, it was forced to close by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health due to 300 workers testing positive for COVID-19 and four workers dying from the virus. The health department claims there were “flagrant violations of mandatory public health infection control orders.” However, Dov Charney, the founder of Los Angeles Apparel, argued that the working conditions were safe; he claimed that employees wore face masks, the six-feet-apart rule was enforced, work spaces were disinfected often and COVID-19 tests were available.
Regardless, this event reveals the lack of care for the safety of the workers. The orders put in place by the health department are meant to protect workers, but without the cooperation of executives, workers’ lives are endangered.
An article by The Los Angeles Times reports the lack of cooperation and loose enforcement of these health protocols by the executives of Los Angeles Apparel. The health department requested a complete list of employees from the company with the intention to compare it with the COVID-19 test results they received. However, after several requests, Los Angeles Apparel would not provide the list. Similarly, the company violated health protocols put in place by the health department when they used cardboard as barriers in the factory.
Despite these violations, the factories of Los Angeles Apparel are set to reopen after their second shutdown due to coronavirus outbreaks and new regulations will be enforced by the health department. Will these new protocols really manage to prevent another coronavirus outbreak in these factories considering the lack of cooperation of the company’s executives? Based on the previous instances of health protocol violations, the extent to which these protocols will be enforced in the factories in the future is unknown. The pattern of continuous shutdowns due to unsafe working conditions suggests that these companies do not prioritize the health of their workers.
It all boils down to a simple question with a complicated answer. Should you support fast fashion? If these companies lose support and money, then all of their workers would lose their jobs, exacerbating what is already a difficult situation because of the repercussions of COVID-19. Workers like Akter worldwide would not be able to support their families, further contributing to long-standing issues with hunger.
On the other hand, fast fashion is unethical and unsustainable. Showing support for fast fashion validates the mistreatment of the employees due to the lack of pay and unsafe working conditions. Moreover, fast fashion brands are notorious for contributing to environmental issues such as water pollution and carbon emissions.
Overall, I believe that there is an issue with the ethics of fast fashion, so moving away from it is better in the long run. For those who would like to stray away from fast fashion, there are some alternatives. Shopping second hand or thrift shopping is an eco-friendly choice to consider. If you choose to support fast fashion, think about using the thirty-wear-test before making a purchase. Ask yourself if you would actually wear a certain piece of clothing at least thirty times before tossing it into your shopping cart.
Being conscious of your decision to support fast fashion during these uncertain times is crucial; be considerate of the workers that help manufacture your clothing. So, the next time you cannot sleep at night and come across a stylish pair of jeans online, think about the consequences of hastily clicking “Complete Purchase.”
Anum Damani discusses the impact of COVID-19 on garment workers and encourages shoppers to consider their consumption of fast fashion.