3 October 2020

Stop lecturing women about ‘sustainable’ fashion


Boohoo turned over nearly £1 billion in the last six months. The British online fashion retailer has defied the economic doom and gloom, and this week announced it has increased revenue by a staggering 45%. But if you listened to media commentators, campaigners, MPs and even fashion insiders you’d think that was a bad thing.

‘Fast fashion’ brands like Boohoo, Missguided, PrettyLittleThing, Asos and H&M get a bad rep for selling cheap clothes to cash-poor, trend-conscious, social media obsessed teens. If you Google it the first result you get is ‘what is fast fashion and why is it a problem?’. Extinction Rebellion recently protested outside Boohoo’s Manchester headquarters over environmental concerns and a cross-party group of MPs has recently called for changes (read increases) to VAT to curb the excesses of the industry.

The APPG for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion said, “Consumer habits have shifted and so have attitudes – the public wants to see change”. This is absolutely correct; consumer habits have shifted dramatically – in favour of buying cheaper clothes online. While clothing sales at high street shops have been particularly badly hit by lockdown, falling 30% since March, digital sales have grown by around 50%. Mid-price brands that were once stalwarts of every highstreet, like Warehouse and Oasis, have gone into administration and been bought up by, yes, Boohoo. Meanwhile the enormous queues outside Primark when non-essential shops reopened in June were evidence that there is still a market for physical clothing stores, but at the cheaper end of the spectrum. “The public” may well “want to see change”, but the numbers are telling a different story.

The fact is, websites like Asos and Boohoo have revolutionised the fashion industry and made up-to-the-minute trends accessible at pocket money prices. They offer quick, fun, democratic escapism, and they’ve boomed during the pandemic because consumers love them.

Fast fashion retailers are incredibly nimble and have quickly pivoted from pushing glamorous dresses for nights out to comfy loungewear for working at home. Prices are low and turnaround is quick – Boohoo adds as many as 115 new garments to its website every day. This means customers can constantly refresh their look and always be on-trend.

It’s a completely different business model to luxury fashion where designers plan months ahead, putting their spring/summer collections on the catwalk in September. Instead of trying to predict what customers will want well in advance, online retailers have access to real-time data about what people are buying now. They also have relationships with celebrity influencers, so young people stuck at home scrolling through Instagram during the Covid crisis just need to click on a reality TV star’s post to buy what she’s wearing.

No wonder fashion’s old guard are feeling threatened. Designers like Stella McCartney urge customers to shop more ‘ethically’ by, errr, buying their clothes instead. Vivienne Westwood, who recently declared that she was a canary and protested outside the Old Bailey in a giant birdcage over something to do with Julian Assange, has said: “buying less and choosing quality means that designers can make better fashion, not just lead by marketing and commercial interests“. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has criticised fast fashion for fuelling ‘overconsumption’ of clothes and proposed a new sin tax on every garment produced.

The aim is to get us to buy fewer, but more expensive clothes. That’s all very well for those who can afford it, but the cheapest dress I could find on Vivienne Westwood’s website was £300. That’s completely out of reach for ordinary shoppers, especially the 16-30 demographic that favours fast fashion. Of course tremendous skill and artistry go into making designer clothes; a couture gown by the likes of Alexander McQueen has more in common with a work of art than a sequinned mini from H&M. But there’s a difference between making a beautiful dress and making clothes that women feel beautiful in. High fashion is elitist, the whole business model relies on exclusivity and impossible glamour. ‘Being led by marketing and commercial interests’ just means selling people what they want at a price they can afford – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s also particularly wearisome to hear MPs and experts who’d never dream of buying a bodycon halter dress (£6.40 from Asos) lecturing women about what to wear. Take Stella Claxton from the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University, who was quoted by the Environmental Audit Committee: “These garments are mainly aimed at young women who are … [gaining] pleasure from what they wear and expressing their identity through their clothing, but the actual value of the item is very low in real terms, in quality terms and in emotional terms to them.”

But how does she know? Who is she, or anyone else, to judge what ‘emotional value’ a young woman may get out of wearing a dress she loves and feels great in? It’s way too easy to sneer at consumers who like cheap things and dismiss women’s shopping habits as trivial. I find it very difficult to imagine this kind of paternalistic language being used about something mostly bought by men.

That’s not to say there aren’t real problems in the fast fashion industry. The clothes are mostly made from synthetic fibres that are terrible for the environment. Because they’re so cheap people often only wear items once and the constant churn of new products means there’s an enormous amount of waste that ends up in landfill. A recent Covid outbreak in a Leicester garment factory used by Boohoo has revealed appalling working practices. An investigation by the Sunday Times found that some UK factory workers were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour, well below the minimum wage. That’s not just unacceptable, it’s illegal. A ‘Made in the UK’ label in a garment should mean no one who’s been anywhere near its manufacture has been exploited.

The industry is responding to criticism: an independent review into Boohoo’s supply chain has now been published. H&M has committed to using exclusively recycled and sustainable materials by 2030. Both H&M and Asos have signed an agreement with IndustriAll, a global trade union that represents 50 million workers, to strengthen international labour standards. Online brands actually have the potential to be less wasteful than high street retailers because they are able to collect vast amounts of data and streamline production. The Select Committee report made many more useful recommendations, and policymakers should work with these businesses to incentivise more environmentally-friendly practices and improve transparency in the supply chain.

But framing the problem as one of ‘overconsumption’ is wrongheaded. Instead of patronising young women for wanting to look nice or punishing them with taxes, surely we should be celebrating the fact that they still want to buy stuff. Our economy is in such bad shape that the Chancellor literally paid us to go to restaurants. People buying things is good; that’s how we get growth – and boy do we need it right now.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.