Union Busting, Disease and Sweatshop Labour: The True Cost of Fashion

Ask most people in the UK and, more often than not, they’ll be able to tell you what a sweatshop is. Thanks to non-profits such as Fashion Revolution, knowledge about the unfair treatment of clothing industry workers is gaining currency. Google trends show how searches for fast fashion have reached an all-time high in the past few months, coinciding with discoveries about the proliferation of slave-produced Xingjian cotton in many popular brands. 

Closer to home, the online fashion retailer Boohoo found itself at the centre of a sweatshop scandal. On July 5 2020, an undercover investigation by the Sunday Times found that workers in Boohoo’s Leicester supply factory could be expected to be paid between £3.50 and £4.00 an hour (the UK minimum wage is £8.72 per hour), prompting a damning investigation by the National Crime Agency. This was coupled with breaches of coronavirus restrictions, leading to Amazon, Asos, Next, and Very refusing to stock Boohoo products. Fast fashion is more than just an international problem; it affects British workers too.

But while knowledge about the exploitation of fashion workers is at a record high, few seem to be asking what an end to this exploitation would look like. A recent Twitter controversy highlights this perfectly. On December 2nd, the Democratic representative for New York’s 14th Congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, retweeted an advertisement for her new line of merchandise. Reflecting the representative’s democratically socialist politics, one sweatshirt included the line ‘tax the rich’. Many Twitter users, however, pointed out the incongruency of the price of her merchandise with the displayed message, commenting that ‘Nothing says “I fight for the little guy” like charging $65 for a sweatshirt’. Another replied that ‘Only rich people can afford a $58 sweatshirt’. 

Although comparatively $65 is a lot of money to pay for a sweatshirt, when it comes to labour costs it is dishonest to compare Ocasio-Cortez’s sweatshirts with those from a normal retailer. On the website, they are explicitly advertised as ‘Made in US’ and ‘Union printed’, while most sweatshirts in the US and UK are imported from overseas and produced by non-unionised workers. Following the backlash, Ocasio-Cortez retweeted a message from Stephen Punwasi, a former mass-market apparel designer, who claimed that the price of the sweatshirt is ‘what it costs to pay everyone a decent wage’. Representative Ocasio-Cortez further defended her position, stating that ‘we don’t use slave-wage labour for merch’, while merchandise produced by the Republican party isn’t produced in the US.

I would argue that this controversy demonstrates a wider truth. While activists that oppose fast fashion have effectively communicated the horrifying exploitation of workers in the fashion industry, there isn’t much awareness about what it costs to produce clothes without exploitation.

Most corporations see the ethical treatment of workers as a marketing strategy rather than a moral duty to their employees

One business that seeks to produce more ethically made products is Everlane. The company’s slogan is ‘radical transparency’, which is certainly a step in the right direction. This transparency is demonstrated by the company’s willingness to break down the individual costs of producing their garments, including the cost of labour. In theory, this would make it easy to evaluate how fairly Everlane are paying their workers. The factories’ working conditions also undergo rigorous testing, requiring an audit score of above 90 to be deemed acceptable. A potential customer can even view all of Everlane’s factories on their website, including pictures of their workers and the garments being produced. It is clear that to Everlane, the fair treatment of their workers, as well as the environmentally sustainable production of their clothes, is their main selling point, and justifies their higher sale price.

Recently, however, the cracks have been starting to show in Everlane’s approach to ‘slow fashion’. In March 2020, a significant number of Everlane employees were laid off by the company’s upper management after threatening unionisation, due to concerns about the company’s employment policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation escalated when Bernie Sanders’s Twitter account, in the midst of the Vermont senator’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nominee, criticised Everlane for these anti-union actions. However, with no union to protect them, VICE news reported that 42 of the 57 ‘customer experience’ team members were laid off, while 248 further employees were put on furlough, despite reassurances from the company that business was strong.

What the example of Everlane demonstrates is that, at the end of the day, most corporations see the ethical treatment of workers as a marketing strategy rather than a moral duty to their employees. Unions are the point of fracture here: due to stereotypes of brutality that characterise them, allegedly ethical corporations such as Everlane will often avoid embracing them at the expense of their workers. In other words, rather than through superficially innovative solutions, the most effective way to end the exploitation of workers in the fast fashion industry is union power.