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Profits and pollution: The truth about fashion’s pandemic

Profits and pollution: The truth about fashion’s pandemic

The world’s top 20 fashion brands raked in record profits last year, as millions of garment workers lost their jobs. Meanwhile, the longed-for climate benefits of the industrial slowdown have failed to materialise. What exactly is going on – and what can WE do about it?

JAN 27TH 2021


Around a year ago, when the world was still merely approaching chaos, the advancement of COVID-19 and the economic shutdowns it was creating in its wake began to raise real challenges for the fashion industry.


The impact, it was clear, was going to be huge. And yet, there was an underlying feeling of hope.


Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash


Amongst sustainable fashion campaigners, academics and conscious consumers alike, there were cautiously optimistic mutterings. Was this devasting global pandemic, this huge disaster, going to be a catalyst for genuine change in the fashion industry? Would the silver lining of the horror then still to come be a shift to greener, more sustainable supply chains?


Such a transformation would have been remarkable, not only for individual businesses but for the entire industry, and I remember feeling so hopeful about the year ahead. The pandemic was bad news, clearly, but could it, too, be an opportunity to create a fairer, safer world for all? Was the fashion revolution we’d been waiting for just around the corner?


Pause for effect?


Part of reaching that greener future was addressing the issue of pollution. Last year, news reports were optimistic that slowdowns in industry production and travel would lower CO2 rates. For many, the potential for this global pandemic to have a positive climate impact seemed like the positive pay-off to life in lockdown.


Fast forward to January 2021, and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) research suggests the effect of lockdowns on global concentrations of CO2 were so small they were considered a ‘blip’, hardly distinguishable from normal year-on-year fluctuations on the carbon cycle.


In fact, in 2020, the quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere reached record levels. This is, frankly, heartbreaking.


Image: Asif Kusuma/Unsplash


Or, maybe this is a good outcome? Perhaps this proves, finally, that small incremental changes are not going to cut it. Maybe this is the news we needed to hammer home the facts – that only huge systemic change can make a real and lasting difference.


It is time for governments to get tough, to make real changes to energy policy and prioritise the protection of forests. It is time for banks, investors, angels and business grant programmes to favour firms making a difference. It is time for greenwashing to be made an offence under communication and advertising laws. And it is time for us to stop using the term ‘global warming’ – which can frankly sound like a good thing to those of us in cold northern climates – and to start using the correct terminology: ‘global disaster’.


Which brings us to fashion, where ‘disaster’ seems the only accurate term. What other word would adequately describe the fashion future we now find ourselves in?


The true cost


Now, let’s be clear – the pandemic has not been a catastrophe for the world’s 20 most profitable apparel companies who, according to McKinsey, now account for 97 per cent of industry profits. No. Within the last year, the market capitalisation of these 20 fashion brands has soared by 11 per cent.


It has however, been a truly devasting time for the millions of garment workers whose wages have declined by 21 per cent during that same time period, according to analysis by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). Dr. Hakan Karaosman, chief scientist at Fashion’s Responsible Supply Chain Hub (FReSCH) at the UCD College of Business explains: “Research shows that the most profitable brands keep on exponentially growing, while garment worker wages significantly decline.


“Throughout Covid-19, millions of garment workers lost their jobs. As such, garment manufacturers and suppliers across the world reportedly lost more than $16.2 billion from April through June from the US alone, as brands cancelled orders, postposed payments and demanded significant price discounts. Furthermore, garment workers are reportedly owed between $3bn and $6bn in wages for just the first three months of the pandemic.”


Garment workers protest for pay
Image: Pay Up Fashion


In short, whilst laid off garment workers are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families, the top 20 publicly traded fashion brands and retailers have roared back to life, recording record-breaking pandemic profits in excess of $11.32 billion. Zara alone raked in $1.05 billion, while Nike pocketed $1.25 billion at the same time as laying off 700 employees. But what can we do about it?


Fashion futures


A number of campaigns aiming to address this social injustice have sprung up over the last few months, with PayUp Fashion and Re/make just two of those calling out offenders and trying to hold them accountable, flagging up greenwashing and demanding the firms responsible to do the right thing. To address the lack of transparency prevalent in the picture, the Pay Up Fashion website is documenting which brands have made a public commitment to pay for their in-production and finished orders and, crucially, which have not.


As Dr Hakan explains, “Social inequalities exist. But garment workers in more vulnerable and disenfranchised communities are being most significantly affected, with COVID-19 exacerbating risks further for lower tier suppliers. We need transparency, accountability and responsibility more than ever. We cannot be silent.”


Image: Pay Up Fashion


For me, that rallying cry is not a directive to simply plaster ‘Pay Up’ all over your social media – though that does help. Rather, this is a call to speak with your most powerful voice to these companies – namely, your hard-earned disposal income. If we want these conglomerates to truly listen, we need to speak in a language that their very wealthy (male) owners understand. And that means impacting their bottom line. Only then will they start doing things differently.


Hope endures


With all that said though, am I still hopeful? Yes, actually. I am. I believe that now, more than even a year ago, the tide is turning – thanks in no small part to the many wonderful campaigners and experts fighting to make the fashion industry more accountable. 


The global pandemic has helped expose the vulnerabilities of fashion supply chains, the power imbalances and lack of representation. It has also highlighted that a short ‘pause’ will do nothing for the impending climate disaster.


Neither of these issues will be solved by small incremental actions. Now we have the evidence to support systemic change. Together, it’s time to be that change.

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