CULTURE: TopShop or TopFlop – the ethics of fast fashion

Upon the end of lockdown and the beginning of the Christmas season, The Verse’s Lilly Croucher reflects on the modern-day fashion industry and it’s impact on our planet and society.

With the end of lockdown 2.0 fast approaching and retail stores getting ready to open once again for the festive season, I am reminded of a moment from last year, when I was shopping on Black Friday, shamefully participating in the consumption of early Christmas presents.

This fake American holiday is where you would hope to grab some good deals, and maybe expect a few crowds, however not as much as there was last year outside TopShop, Churchill Square. As I tried to go into the store to buy my third pair of Joni jeans, there was a large group of people chanting and shouting with flags and music blocking the doors. Maybe they were upset about the queues or the deals, or worse, maybe they had run out of cheap jeans. Whatever it was, this crowd seemed angry. Intrigued, I went over to see what the commotion was all about.

Photo by Lilly Croucher

I quickly realized that this was the Extinction Rebellion (EXR) chanting and shouting outside TopShop. I had always thought the EXR protested for climate change, not for clothing deals. I then spoke to Mark, one of the organizers:

Photo by Lilly Croucher

‘We are bringing attention to the fast fashion industry and the amount of waste it has caused by it, the amount of clothing that goes into landfill and incineration every year largely driven by the fashion industry’.

Mark explained to me the detrimental effects that fast fashion companies, such as TopShop, have on the environment, due to their production processes and wastage. He showed me 9 bathtubs on the pavement and explained:

‘The baths are here to flag how much water it takes to make one single T-shirt. It takes 2700L of water to make a single T-shirt, thanks to the production process of dyeing […] and obviously, that’s drinking water. That’s a lot of waste and a lot of CO2 being burnt in that process’.

Shocked by these numbers, I decided to dig further into this, and found that the Environmental Audit Committee had published a report on ‘Fixing fashion’. In the report by the House of Commons:

‘Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined. [It] consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution’.

The True Cost poster – IMDB

The committee warns that if fast fashion is not dealt with, the environmental impacts will become irreversible, However, it is not only climate change that is affected by the over production of textile garments. Upon speaking to Faith, a student from the EXR, she described to me that there are ‘people in other parts of the world who are living below the poverty line to make these clothes, it’s not just about the environment – it’s about human rights as well’.

The human cost that is exploited in overcrowded, unsafe, inhumane sweatshops is all at the hands of big corporations like the Arcadia group, who owns TopShop. Most of these sweatshops are in Bangladesh and India, poorer parts of the world where labour is cheap and where cuts can be easily made to obtain more profit.

Andrew Morgan’s ‘The True Cost’ documentary shines a light on the disastrous conditions and exploitations on the workers suffering inside these factories. It discusses the Rana plaza disaster, where a factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1000 people inside, whilst explaining how the companies do not own the factories nor control their working conditions, allowing them to make huge profits whilst remaining free from responsibility when it comes to precarious employment, factory disasters and violent treatment of workers – thus creating a ‘perfectly engineered nightmare for the workers inside’.

The Rana Plaza Disaster, Dhaka – Bangladesh (from Wikipedia)

Arcadia’s influence is wide reaching, from the advertisements we see as consumers to the demands they set on factories to make more product for a cheaper cost.

The factory owners have to comply with the companies for the lower prices otherwise they won’t trade with them – which puts a huge amount of pressure upon the factories and the workers, leaving the employees vulnerable to long hours, poor working conditions and subject to modern slavery.

Looking at Arcadia group’s Modern Slavery statement, Arcadia’s influence on the factories involved with primary manufacturing is ‘high’ and so is the risk of modern slavery in these factories. This correlation between the two shoes Arcadia’s influence on the factories putting workers at risk for slavery, but relieves Arcadia of any blame.

Furthermore, the Arcadia group has not signed the ethical trading initiative protecting all workers in the production processes – as of December 2020.

The environmental audit says: ‘[The] increased numbers of new fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds and often lower prices. Reacting rapidly to offer new products to meet consumer demand is crucial to this business model’.

Bangladesh garment workers protesting

Arcadia’s ‘mission statement’ says: ‘[Arcadia] recognizes sustainability’ and wants to ‘make a positive difference’ by ‘reducing their fashion footprint’.

But with ‘400 new products every week’; 620 stores worldwide and the Oxford street shop seeing 400000 customers in that week, it’s easy to see that these companies are only getting more powerful.

Andrew Morgan explains that the fashion industry has been able to change the way we consume clothes from being products we buy and use to products that we use up, ‘making us feel rich, but ultimately making us poorer’, highlighting the harmful side effects of capitalism’s supply and demand chain.

Mark, from EXR, told me that the government needs to listen to the environmental audit’s ‘recommendations about the fast fashion industry to put levies on every item of clothing. To put into legislations, to stop things that could be reused or recycled being incinerated, being destroyed or put into landfills. All of these things were rejected by the government right down to putting tax relief on small companies that recycle clothing‘.

Companies, like the Arcadia group, need to be taking responsibility for their production at every point in their process. From picking the cotton and making the clothes, to selling to the consumers and what happens to their product after the consumer is finished with it.

But the question really is; are we as a society doing enough?

Consumerism – the byproduct of capitalism

We can reduce our fashion footprint by getting involved in peaceful strikes, not buying unnecessary items just because of sales, recycle, donate, upcycle, use online clothes swaps such as Depop, or sustainable charity shops.

So maybe this year, when retail opens again and we go pick up a new pair of jeans, we will remember the human hands who touched our clothes and recognize the real cost of modern-day fashion.

I contacted TopShop and the Arcadia group, but never got a reply.

Featured image: Tim Mitchell, Clothing Recycled, 2005, detail © Tim Mitchell and Lucy Norris


Lilly Croucher

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