Why consumers are complicit in workers’ sufferings
In the United Kingdom, they have a small but thriving garment industry in Leicester, an industrial city about 100 miles north of London. There, several hundred garment factories supply to a few UK brands, although Boohoo is by far the biggest buyer. Boohoo purchases about 70 percent of the garments produced in Leicester and this close proximity to suppliers allows Boohoo to get the latest lines onto its website rapidly. This is ultra-fast fashion, a speed to market which no rivals can compete with.
However, in the past week, journalists and NGOs have announced the results of investigations which show that workers at Leicester's garment industry worked throughout the UK lockdown. Moreover, it has been revealed that many workers were forced to go to work despite being ill with coronavirus. They were told they would be fired if they did not turn up.
It has also been revealed that garment workers are earning as little as 3.50 pounds per hour. This is way below the UK National Minimum Wage of 8.72 pounds. Imagine the scandal if such issues were uncovered in Bangladesh! There would be a global outcry. But that is another story for another day.
For now I want to focus on Boohoo. Boohoo's clothes are amazingly cheap. The company sells dresses for 10 pounds, T-shirts for 3 pounds, jeans for 8 pounds, bikinis for 5 pounds. During lockdown, the business announced a year-on-year annual increase in sales—this at a time when all other retailers were struggling. How did it manage this? Because it switched production to loungewear, pyjamas, and joggers, recognising that people wanted comfortable clothes as they were self-isolating at home.
Bear in mind that the company will not have had any of this clothing made up as nobody saw the coronavirus pandemic coming. So it will have had to ask its suppliers to switch lines and work flat out to meet soaring demand from homeworkers for comfortable clothing.
I am relating this to make a very simple point: if an online retailer is selling a dress for 10 pounds or less, and responding rapidly to the demand for loungewear when the whole country is in lockdown, what would your thoughts be as a consumer? At the very least, you might wonder, firstly, how the company managed to produce clothing so cheaply and, secondly, how it was managing to continue with "business as usual" during lockdown while many other retailers were struggling to meet market demand.
This is the thing in all of this: nobody ever asks questions of consumers. Nobody ever raises concerns about their buying habits.
We keep being told that millennials are conscious shoppers, that they care about the environment and they have consideration for the people who make their clothes. And yet it is these same millennials which have made Boohoo the powerhouse that it is today. These same young shoppers, who are supposed to have a conscience, have enabled Boohoo to grow by 1,000 percent in five years.
Here's the thing: if these millennials do not appear to give consideration to clothing made in the UK, why are they going to give any consideration to people making their clothing in far-away places such as Bangladesh? They clearly are not.
I am not defending Boohoo here. It is they who have helped to create this ultra-fast market. But a large majority of consumers have been more than willing participants. They have talked openly about wanting a better world but when it comes to cheap clothing, they vote with their feet. There is no point in denying this anymore.
In all honesty I believe there are large swathes of young consumers in the West who do not give any consideration to the above issues. All they are concerned with is the look of the clothing and what it costs. Boohoo and others like it have therefore responded accordingly to what is essentially a massive market demand for the latest fashion trends at the cheapest possible prices.
The prices on Boohoo are the price points set by the market—the price points set by consumers. If Boohoo disappeared tomorrow a different company doing the same thing charging the same rock bottom prices would soon take its place, such is the consumer demand in this segment.
Boohoo will keep grabbing all the headlines on these issues but the much bigger story here is that of a generation of consumers who view clothing as a commodity with no intrinsic value and won't pay a penny more for it than they have to.
But the fact is, while conscious consumers and their conscientious purchasing from shops can protect workers, it can also largely contribute to preventing unethical practices of buyers. It's the consumers in whose hands is the ultimate power to reform the global apparel industry, make it more responsible and restore the lives and livelihoods of the workers.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.