If fashion is a representative of who we are, what does wearing the product of exploitation say about us?

The BlackLivesMatter movement that followed the murder of George Floyd was hailed as the biggest in history. Useful infographics and petitions, and less useful black squares, flooded social media feeds. Despite the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the globe to march in protest of the systemic racism that killed George Floyd and too many others. A few months later, it’s disheartening that not much seems to have changed. Unfortunately, a lot of people found themselves falling into performative activism; virtue signalling online but not doing anything tangible in their own lives. Being an ally must extend beyond posting on an app; it is an act that we must practice every day.

In a capitalist society, one of our greatest powers as consumers is to ‘vote with our note’, driving change by incentivising ethical business practice. Sadly, for many of us our shopping habits are inadvertently upholding white supremacy. We have supported an industry that has made incredible profits off the exploitation of predominantly poor women of colour.

People across the UK seemed shocked when it was reported that labour exploitation was occurring in garment factories in Leicester. In the midst of lockdown, workers in these factories were being forced to come into work (even those with symptoms) despite being unable to social distance. To me, this shock and outrage was unconvincing. It has been widely reported that garment workers in Leicester have been paid well under the minimum wage and have not been given the breaks they are legally entitled to. Not only has this labour exploitation been known about for years, but we know that it is integral to the fast fashion business model. Since the boom of online retailers, factories have been pressured to take health and safety shortcuts to produce garments at very low prices. Up until the moment it might affect us, it seems we are happy to prioritise our right to cheap stuff over the rights of women of colour to safe and dignified working conditions.

The burden of our excessive consumerism is falling on the shoulders of those with the least power in the system. Labour Behind the Label has found that that the workers in Leicester were predominantly women from migrant communities, who are more vulnerable to exploitation. Often these workers have little power over their working conditions, accepting jobs without contracts and not speaking out on abuse because of their immigration status. Until the pandemic, this exploitation gained next to no attention because we accept a level of brutality for others as a fair trade off for our right to buy lots, cheaply.

Even if people were shocked at this happening in the UK, they know that it happens around the world. Replace Leicester with Bangladesh, and nobody is shocked. We have all heard about sweatshops. We should all have heard about the Rana Plaza collapse. As Livia Firth, founder of EcoAge has said, “We always consider the lives of people close to us more precious than the lives of those in far away countries.” We need to start questioning the eerily colonial hierarchies that most of us have internalised. Why do we support corporations founded in the Global North over actual people from the Global South being exploited by those corporations? Deconstructing the ways in which we have upheld racism in society is uncomfortable, but it is vital.

The abuse of these garment workers is just the tip of the iceberg of the exploitation faced by people of colour because of the fashion industry. Non-white people globally will be more greatly impacted by climate change, which the fashion industry is a huge driver of. The majority of people displaced from their homes because of the climate crisis are from countries that account for less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, producing clothes at the rate and volume the fast fashion industry requires takes huge amounts of water, relies on the use of toxic chemicals which can leach into local water supplies, and creates huge amounts of textile waste. The effects of this are most keenly felt by the garment workers and the communities in which they live. Through our purchases we are condemning people to get sick from toxic water and to live among waste. We are supporting a humanitarian and environmental tragedy, for something as inessential as a new top.

If you believe in racial equality, gender equality, or environmental justice then you must stop supporting fast fashion brands. Exploitation is embedded in the DNA of the fashion industry; it is everywhere. The garment workers are exploited. The models are exploited. The customers are exploited, being deceived into ignorance and belief in the fulfilment of pursuing materialism. If we want to be anti-racist, then we must question whether we want to boycott companies that make their millions through the exploitation of women, people of colour, and poor people on a scale so vast it is hard to comprehend. Or whether we will show solidarity by posting a #BlackLivesMatter graphic on our Instagram story every time someone is shot.