Lately, we have started seeing stories about garment workers being rescued from factories. When we saw the story of nearly 1,200 workers being saved from a factory in the middle of the pandemic, we felt the need to share. Not only because it is shocking, but also because it shows that the pandemic has not stopped the industry and that there is a growing potential for change in the cracks it has created.

Let us step back for a moment.

A system in crisis

The fashion industry has been a dysfunctional system for a very long time. A system that prides itself on growth, speed, and fortune that is made at the cost of human life and the planet is not a success. A business model that over-produces and needs an ever-increasing amount of water, energy, labour and space cannot possibly survive. We have known this for years. Though those in power keep choosing not to see, most of our clothes come with an extreme human cost.

Usually, when a crisis happens, it is those in the lowest positions who feel it the most. As we wrote in our previous post, when the pandemic started, it had the greatest effect on the garment workers.. How brands and factories reacted to the crisis follows the same logic of exploitation and “profit-over-anything” kind of thinking. However, we cannot solely blame the pandemic for the crisis in the fashion industry. Instead, we have to be aware that the issues run much deeper.

We cannot pretend to be able to show the whole complexity of the fashion system in a single post. Not even a series of posts. However, we can start connecting the dots to explain the reason why the workers were locked down in a factory and what the emergency response could teach us all.

A paradox?

India is the world’s 5th largest economy, and now has the second highest amount of COVID-19 cases recorded (by country). Recently, the Guardian reported that the current coronavirus cases in India have soared with a new daily record number of 78,761 - the world’s highest single-day increase since the start of the COVID pandemic. This has increased the total number of cases in India to 4.8 million (as of 15/09/20 according to the Guardian) in a country of 1.4 billion people.

The already large number of COVID cases is increasing, which means that there is pressure on the government to impose even stricter lockdowns. However, there are also a number of industries hemorrhaging money and facing collapse post COVID unless they are able to open for business immediately.

India’s economy is plummeting and this will most highly likely result in the loss of jobs for many Indian garment workers. Consequently, this could mean an increase in modern slavery and women working for even less merely to survive the pandemic. We can see this happening already, through the loss of 5 million jobs in July and salaried jobs declining by 22% during the lockdown. The loss in jobs ultimately will make it harder to bring things back to normal post-COVID as completing/catching up with work projects will take even longer. This is due to social distancing implementations which would need to be adhered to, along with strict sanitization norms, minimising the number of workers in an office or factory.

Ultimately, the workers in the garment industry will be even more likely to have to work for less than an appropriate wage. Due to having no income during the pandemic, they may, unintentionally, expose themselves to working in even worse conditions compared to before. Evidence? The 1,200 workers saved from a factory recently.

Is there a third way?

Being stuck in this dilemma may only worsen the consequences. What if, instead, we look for another way? Pressure to go back to the “norm” assumes that the “norm” was working. Maybe for those making profit, it was, but for the garment workers, especially those who are forced to continue working during the pandemic, the “norm” was never working. In most cases, they could not afford basic needs, even at the cost of their health and, in the most extreme cases, lives.

We’d like to make a strong case here: we cannot push for the industry to get back to how it was before the lockdown. The crisis we are seeing now in the industry has existed long before the pandemic. But because the world has slowed down, we can see those cracks more clearly.

Most industries in India are facing the same financial dilemmas. Interestingly, however, agriculture is an exception. The sector reported a growth of 3.4% during COVID with farmers stepping up and taking responsibility to sustain themselves and others as the pandemic continued. The farm sector evolved simultaneously alongside society due to the socio-environmental changes, which increased the crops harvested by 13% for oilseeds and 7% of kharif crops. This actually increased the farmers’ income.

Alternative ways already exist

There is no easy formula here, nor should we look for one. Easy fixes cannot address the complexity and the deeply rooted inequalities of the fashion system. Yet, some of the answers might be hiding in the self-resilience of the agriculture model of India. Though not without flaws, the key lesson we can see here is the ability of the agriculture sector to adapt and absorb the shock of the pandemic. The fashion system operates on a different logic. Lead by the logic of efficiency and linear growth, the fashion industry turned into a global and non-transparent trade where countries like India depend upon the market dictated by the Western countries. Countries like India are treated as factories for the rest of the world, putting them in a dependent position and not allowing them to build any resilience to global shocks. When the latest shock happened, the very real consequences fell on those who are the least protected.

Ultimately, the answer is neither stopping the economy nor forcing people to work in unsafe conditions. It is in reinventing the system. We don’t expect it to happen immediately or quickly. But we do invite each of us to see that there are alternative ways existing around us. For this reason, it is important to share the voices that usually don’t get heard. Listening to, learning from, and acknowledging their realities is a first step towards stepping out of this fashion crisis, which goes beyond the pandemic.

We share some of those on our voice platform and we invite you to engage with them. And we invite you to share your voice with us too!


Tena & Bela

When we discuss accountability in the fashion industry, we tend to focus a lot on the brands. After all, it is their business model that is creating and perpetuating the inequalities across the supply chain. Yet, not only that the fashion system is made out of different players (including us, the consumers) but the brands never stand alone. It is time to get the investors in the picture.

During the lockdown, Bela decided to research about accountability in the fashion industry. After investigating 10 big brands (Adidas, Under Armour and ASOS included) it became apparent to her that most investment companies own large proportions of the big brands. A few of those investment companies are popping up more than once for different clothing brands. This is why we cannot ignore them. While we should not stop demanding the brands to take accountability for (not) paying their garment workers, we have to take the full picture into account. The fact is that the investors play a key role in funding and managing the brands’ actions: brands depend on their support and money. Therefore, it is fundamental to address investors when we discuss unfair labour.

The investors have the power in the fashion industry.

They choose to invest in what they “love and support”. Usually, this means investing in whatever is to be a successful business. For example, with the eco-conscious trend in the West, sustainable fashion has seen a steady increase in importance, especially over recent years. Investors have piled into sustainable funds, which pulled in a record-breaking €120bn in Europe last year — 2.5 times the amount in 2018. This amount shows that yes, investors do have the money to invest in sustainability. Unfortunately, only if that means further profit.

It is time to challenge this.

We believe that investors and shareholders can directly influence how the fashion system works. Investors’ actions shape the brand’s business and policies and, ultimately, they decide how women are treated in the RMG industry. So, opening a conversation about this is necessary for both investors and workers. We want to understand how investors and shareholders are making their investment choices. What processes are in place? Who is accountable for making them? But also, how much visibility do investors really have of the company’s supply chain and their role in modern slavery? Finally, who writes the internal ethical and sustainability policies?

By investing in a company, the investors decide on its growth and success. Therefore, companies need to have transparent relationships with investors for them to know what they are funding and supporting. This however does not remove any responsibility from the brands: they need to prioritise the people who make their clothes, over their own profit. Paying the workers their earned wages, instead of paying off the stakeholders (as Clean Clothes Campaign recently noticed), would be a place to start.

What would be the next one? Share your thoughts with us!

Bela & Tena

To say that the COVID-19 crisis shook the fashion industry is an understatement. The emergency paralysed the industry, sending shocks through the supply chains, and has resulted in job losses, reduced sales and investments, and cancelled orders. The last component in particular has fundamentally impacted the supply chain and those who make our clothes.

Fashion industry cracking

In many ways, the latest crisis amplified the already existing weaknesses of the industry. It made clear the dependence on global exchange, unfair policies, and exploitation. When the first lock-down measures took place, big fashion brands realised that they would have to close their physical shops for an unknown period of time. This meant that they would not be able to make enough sales and their profits would stagnate. In March 2020, they responded to this by cancelling the orders from the manufacturers, leaving them with finished garments and no pay. In Bangladesh alone, the cancelled orders are estimated to be worth about £2.4bn. This is devastating for the manufacturers and their workers. The workers did not receive the payment for the work they already did, leaving them financially paralysed and with no access to any social security, in the middle of the global pandemic.

This financial instability and leverage imbalance occurred at a time where the fashion industry is seeing a growing backlash. The movements that have been promoting and making fashion more sustainable and ethical are culminating in the past years. Now, when the crisis of a global scale cracked the industry, many people from these activism movements stood up and demanded that the brands take responsibility for their actions. And the changes are happening.

What is #PayUp

Perhaps one of the strongest movements is the one launched on March 30th, by the advocacy non-profit organization Remake. Their #PayUp campaign exposes the brands that cancelled their orders and never paid for them and called for them to give what they owed. They initiated a campaign and collected over 250 000 signatures (to date). But what makes this movement so strong and effective is their social media campaign. Many supporters, activists, bloggers, influencers, celebrities, and models have embraced their hashtag, #PayUp and it quickly went global with over 74K posts (and trending) on Instagram.

The campaign lists out the brands that have not paid, along with those who have, so that everybody can see clearly who took the responsibility and who refuses to do so. For many consumers, this alone has been a major eye-opener. At the moment, 17 brands have not yet paid for their orders, including giants like C&A, Primark, Fashion Nova, Forever 21, JCPenney, and Urban.

On the website, they explain that to be removed from the list, brands need to promise to pay the suppliers for all the cancelled and in-production orders in full (not asking for discounts) and in a timely manner.

Moving forwards

While the full effect of the pandemic on the lives of the garment workers is still unfolding, important and long due steps are made. The pressure of the campaign as well as the garment workers organising protests resulted in 19 big brands pledging to pay for the cancelled orders. Some of them include H&M, Inditex (Zara), Levi’s, Marks & Spencer, and Nike. You can follow the brand tracker here. This is incredibly important and proves that the combined efforts of activists, workers, and consumers do make a difference.

The true power of this hashtag is that the brands are being held accountable for their business decisions no longer only by the justice-fighters, but by their customers. The workers are being paid, which is absolutely crucial. But beyond that, people saw how the large corporations responded to the crisis and this alone will have a lasting impact.

Continuing the industry as usual is not likely or even possible. The pre-COVID way of working lied on a dysfunctional model that was financially, ecologically, and socially failing everyone. More than ever, thanks to campaigns like #PayUp the consumers are seeing this. Even the high-level policy-makers, academia and experts are reacting to this. The key now is to navigate this change in the direction we want.

Finally, we invite you to sign the #PayUp petition and follow JIF as we join forces to create a positive change in the fashion industry.

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