How COVID-19 is slowing down fast fashion

This story originally appeared in the June 2020 print edition of Streetwise Magazine

Chicago, the city of Broad Shoulders, is a blue collar town with a strong legacy of working rights. So, it shouldn’t surprise that our city normally hosts the largest World Fair Trade Day (WFTD) event annually/ This year, however, WFTD attendees met on a crowded Zoom call rather than the bustling Daley Plaza.

The message of this year’s meeting was a bit different, too. Normally we’d take this time to discuss the increasingly disposable nature of western consumerism as it comes to our closets. But, like a lot of things since COVID-19, issues that were urgent just a few months ago are being shelved by a global event and it’s unexpected consequences.

Fast fashion has been forced to slow down amidst the global pandemic. In the first two weeks of May alone, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, ALDO and True Religion filed for bankruptcy, with J.C. Penney and Victoria’s Secret rumored to follow suit. Many retailers are unsure if they will be able to reopen following this pandemic.

Elizabeth Cline, acclaimed author of Overdressed and The Conscious Closet, spoke at the World Fair Trade Day fashion seminar to talk about the impact this has on garment workers.

“The fashion corporations are trying to offload these financial burdens onto their factories and garment workers,” Cline says.

Cline, one of the leading voices in sustainable fashion, has been interviewing factory owners in Bangladesh. Here, big brands and department stores have stopped ordering the manufacture of new clothes. As a result, entire factories are out of work and warehouses are full of product they are no longer able to sell.

Like their counterparts across the globe, undocumented garment workers in the U.S. are also facing a perilous and uncertain situation. In Los Angeles, one hundred thousand are employed in the garment industry; the majority are undocumented, and estimated to be mostly Latino and Asian women. They are employed by brands like Fashion Nova, Forever 21 and Ross Dress for Less, usually working overtime and for less than minimum wage. Lacking proper documentation, these workers will not be able to receive federal stimulus checks or file for unemployment. “They have no safety net,” says Cline.

Seeing the vulnerable situation of this workforce is what led Cline to start the PayUp campaign last month, as a resource for garment workers during the pandemic. PayUp has compiled a list of brands which have made commitments to pay, in full, for orders that have been completed or are in production. Those brands include Nike, UNIQLO, Adidas, H&M, and Target. By putting pressure on brands and stores, PayUp has successfully unlocked $7 billion in potentially lost payment. Among the brands who have not pledged to pay workers are ASOS, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Gap, Sears and Urban Outfitters — some of whom are experiencing their own financial woes.

For fair trade garment workers, the crisis hasn’t had to disrupt their work in these same ways. Pushpika Freitas is the founder of MarketPlace, a company which employs female artisans in India to design fair trade clothing. Her workforce consists of women in the Mumbai area of India, who are assigned projects that can be completed from home. This allows mothers to be able to earn a living wage while still caring for their children, which they’ve been doing since the founding of Marketplace in the 80s “We were working from home before it was cool!” she says.

Jamie Hayes, a local shop owner credited with helping introduce the slow fashion movement to Chicago, said it best: “Fashion is all about staying relevant, and fast fashion is the most irrelevant thing to people right now.” As fast fashion brands struggle to keep the momentum of trend cycles going, garment workers are realizing their skills and talents can be utilized for a much more relevant and necessary purpose: providing medical gear.

While her Logan Square shop, Production Mode, has been closed by the Governor Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, Hayes has helped her store’s seamstresses and garment workers pivot to making PPE and reusable masks for essential workers, some being sold and some donated to frontline workers. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” she says, describing how a need for PPE ensures employment for undocumented garment workers who otherwise would have no governmental safety net, and allows her to maintain her independent business without cancelling orders.

The pandemic has provided us all with a chance to reflect on what our needs are and who benefits from our consumer decisions. It’s critical that when we return to business, we don’t just return to business as usual.