Aja Barber: Why Are Fast Fashion Chains Still Open?

As the world faces a global pandemic with the spread of COVID-19, some fast fashion establishments remain open while others have only just shut their doors, significally after the public was asked to stay home. Aja Barber investigates.

I’m on day five of social isolation and the one thing I can say for certain (and very few things are certain at this moment in time) is that I don’t need a new summer maxi dress from a fast fashion establishment. While I myself avoid buying fast fashion because of its harmful impact on both humans and the environment, watching establishments who produce fast fashion stay open during a worldwide pandemic has if anything moved me almost certainly in the direction where I can never use my hard earned cash to support establishments that clearly do not care about their workers. This always plays a part in where I shop, but now I think it matters more than ever.

None of this behaviour has surprised me because we live in a world where fast fashion establishments regularly devalue the lives of garment workers within their supply chain with low pay, mistreatment and unsafe work environments. Somehow all of this gets ignored because we lack connections to both the makers and the products they make. But I don’t know why anyone is surprised that we are facing a global pandemic where the world is coming to a screeching halt and fast fashion stores are still open, exposing their vulnerable employees not only to risk of contracting the virus COVID-19, but of spreading it to others as well.

As of today March 19th, some big-name stores remain open on the high street, endangering the lives of their sales staff and the general public who doesn’t understand how serious this all is. Others have only just closed their shutters, While those willing to shop for clothing at this time are wilfully taking their lives into their own hands and compromising the safety of others, retail workers within stores have zero say in the matter. In most cases, it is a case of come to work or risk being penalised and losing necessary pay. It is an utterly unfair system.

Perhaps the worst thing of all is that many of the stores I see remaining open have billionaire owners. Some have multiple billionaire owners. You can find a lot of great critiques about the ethics of billionaires on the Internet, so I don’t need to do that here; but what about the ethics of a company owner that makes hourly wage earners proceed to sell non-essential items during a global pandemic?  That’s a new one that we’ve never dissected before in our society… possibly because this is the first time we’ve seen this particular situation in history.

I began to share on Twitter about how I found all of this deeply unethical, harmful and slightly disturbing and no sooner did I press send on my tweet did I become flooded with messages from horrified retail workers. Many of the stories I heard were both shocking and terrible but completely expected. One such worker told me that after multiple staff called in with COVID-19 like symptoms, the store was given a thorough cleaning (of course exposing vulnerable janitorial staff to the virus), so the employees could be back to selling clothes the next day.



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Another worker explained that “people are starting to call in and those people who are calling in are still coming in (because they can’t afford not to) – proving that we’ve got sick workers working in these stores.” Many workers who contacted me are younger adults who live with family and older parents or those with compromised immune systems.  If they weren’t worried for their own wellbeing, they were worried over the fact that they could bring home the virus to someone they love who wouldn’t be able to fight it off.  Many were just worried about how they would pay their bills if they didn’t come to work at this time despite being terrified to travel.

The more difficult part of the actions of those fast fashion establishments who choose to be open during this time are the claims that they’re simply complying with government regulations. The government generally doesn’t tell any of these companies how to run – so it’s an odd statement to say the least.  For one such brand who tweeted that response to me, I pointed out that when the virus spread rapidly in China the brand was forced to close down all of its Chinese stores.  Why wasn’t it simply following the same protocol in the UK as well?

While the government hasn’t launched an official shut down, there is one thing that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said on numerous occasions: “Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others.” Johnson has also advised against large gatherings and encouraged social isolation for those who don’t have to be out and about right now. All over the UK we’re seeing concert venues, gym, theatres and other gathering spots shutter during the epidemic. If large gatherings are currently being closed in order to slow the spread of the virus, then shouldn’t all large non-essential retail establishments take heed as well?  Surely one will need food and medicine to get through this particular moment in history, but the summery maxi dress can certainly wait for better days, right?

Many of the brands who are making their employees work during a global pandemic also claim to have some sort of ‘sustainability’ within the pipeline of their brand (which I’m always up for debating based on the sheer amount of quantity many of these retailers produce which goes to waste and ends up in the landfill within a year).  But when it comes to sustainability this is why I always believe that you can’t have sustainability without ethics.  The two most go hand in hand. If you’re not valuing the safety of your fellow humans in the way you run your business, then I can only help but to wonder what you’re trying to sustain in your business practice besides unchecked capitalism and billions of dollars.


Learn more about #EcoTogether with a letter from Livia Firth.

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Aja Barber asks: Is fast fashion actually that cheap?