What does a ‘Made in Britain’ clothes label mean to you? Quality, perhaps? Locally-sourced materials? Images of rolling green hills and slow, artisanal craft fuelled by lovely cups of tea? Or at least, the reassurance that your clothes have been made without any of the exploitation so widely associated with the brutal sweatshops seen in other countries? It would be nice to think so.
A return to British manufacturing has long been championed as a kind of silver bullet solution; a way to swerve the pain and suffering woven so tightly into global fashion supply chains. Ever since the late 1980s, when UK companies began offshoring the vast bulk of their garment production to developing countries, a practise known as ‘chasing the cheapest needle around the world’, fast fashion’s toxic issues have become synonymous with overseas production. Made in Bangladesh? Bad, we assume. Made in Britain? Great!
But like so many ethical dilemmas, the truth is far more complicated and a lot less pretty.
A new report published on Tuesday by campaign group Labour Behind the Label has suggested that Leicester’s fashion industry could be at the heart of the coronavirus resurgence that has seen the city re-enter lockdown this week, after Public Health England found evidence that young men between 20 and 40 who work in the city’s garment factories and food processing plants were major vectors of transmission.
The report claims that numerous Leicester garment factories remained open throughout lockdown without proper safety and social distancing measures, with many workers told to come to work despite lockdown restrictions – even with symptoms, or after testing positive for Covid-19.
“Most factories in Leicester are small workshops, often housed in dilapidated buildings with little investment in building safety and modern ventilation,” states the report, which went on to suggest that if any factories were operating they would be unable to do so at full capacity whilst ensuring social distancing and adequate Covid-19 protection measures.
Several factories have also been accused of furlough fraud, claiming money via the government scheme for employees who had already been made redundant, or forcing furloughed employees to come into work anyway or risk going unpaid.
Let’s be clear: this should not be surprising news. The shady practices happening in the UK’s garment sector have been an open secret for years. Back in 2015, an investigation by the University of Leicester found that the majority of the city’s 11,700 garment workers were paid below national minimum wage, with many working excessive overtime and denied proper employment contracts. In 2017, undercover reporters for Channel 4’s Dispatches found that factories making clothes for River Island, New Look, Boohoo and Missguided were paying workers as little as £3 an hour (less than half the national minimum wage), with conditions that fell woefully short of health and safety standards.
All the brands implicated were quick to release statements claiming internal action was being taken to investigate the claims – and yet here we are, three years later, reeling once more from the news that those ‘Made in Britain’ bargains may have a human cost. Fast fashion’s pace has become so relentless that even a pandemic can’t ease the pressure on factory bosses to fulfill orders. And for what? A killer outfit for our next Zoom quiz?
Labour Behind the Label’s report focuses primarily on Boohoo, the brand which reportedly accounts for a huge 75–80% of all garment production in Leicester (they also source from factories in Manchester). As awareness of international sweatshops has grown in recent years, Boohoo and rival online brands like Missguided have used their UK manufacturing as a point of pride, suggesting that local production is the reason they’re able to turn trends around so quickly, getting those celeb copycat looks from TV screens to shoppers’ wardrobes in a matter of days. Last year, even as Boohoo was promoting a new recycled brand made from synthetic waste saved from landfill, the company was reportedly refusing to allow trade union officials to speak to its workers.
While those workers, the report suggests, kept sewing in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, the Boohoo group was busy acquiring the Oasis and Warehouse brands to add to its £4.6 billion portfolio (which also includes sister companies NastyGal and PrettyLittleThing). “During unprecedented and challenging times, the Group has delivered a very strong trading and operational performance,” said CEO John Lyttle last month.
"The Boohoo group categorically does not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain and we have terminated relationships with suppliers where evidence of non-compliance with our strict code of conduct is found," Boohoo said in a statement in response to Labour Behind the Label’s allegations.
"Since the onset of the coronavirus, we have significantly changed how we operate our business to ensure that we have closely followed and adhered to all aspects of the guidance provided by the Government to keep everyone in our business safe and well. At no point has this guidance required any online business or factory to close. It is therefore wrong to suggest that we were flouting the rules by continuing to trade before the 22nd April."
The business also said that it had used video inspections and "constant reiteration of our expectations on social distancing and hygiene measures" in its communications with factories. "Additionally we made available sufficient amounts of PPE and hygiene products free of charge to any supplier that needed them to ensure that these were available for their teams, so there is no reason that these would not be available. As soon as lockdown restrictions were eased, our compliance team and third party compliance specialists immediately resumed on-site auditing." Finally, it stated that: "We therefore do not condone any supplier that disregards the very clear guidance on dealing with those affected by Covid-19 and we will immediately look into the claims made in this report."
We might assume that factories working in the conditions suggested by the report simply couldn’t operate in Britain today. But then, we assume a lot of things. We assume that UK law regulates this kind of thing; that we can offshore our guilt to faraway countries like China and Bangladesh, where garment workers are still protesting the billions of dollars currently owed by brands including Topshop, Primark and Urban Outfitters. We might assume, with prejudice, that it’s impossible to make clothes ethically in developing countries (wrong), while fashion’s humanitarian crisis couldn’t possibly happen on our soil. We assume that any dress or handbag with a ‘Made in Britain’ label must be part of the solution, not the problem.
And of course, many are. But while the government fails to keep tabs on factories, brands will continue taking advantage of vulnerable workers to keep their prices low and product churn high. “It is not enough to simply blame unethical factory owners. Retailers’ purchasing practices create a race to the bottom culture in the industry through their demand for cheap prices, rapid deliveries and a punitive financial culture which imposes huge fines on producers,” the Unite union told the government’s Environmental Audit Committee last year (before, we should note, every single one of the Committee’s proposals for a more ethical fashion industry was rejected by the government).
We need tighter surveillance, stricter enforcement of the minimum wage and complete transparency around suppliers, so we can hold brands accountable. But we also need an end to the frenetic pace of fashion consumption that is driving this kind of behaviour. We need to wake up to the fact that it is dubious at best that a brand, either at home or abroad, can make a new £4 dress without there being ethical implications.
Like so many other social inequalities thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic, Covid-19 is merely shining a brighter spotlight on murkiness and injustice that has been on our doorstep for years. Now it’s up to us to look beyond our labels – and remember that if a fashion bargain seems too good to be true, it’s because someone is paying the price.
Lauren Bravo is the author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion