By Rena Niamh Smith
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Rag trade is fraying at the edges

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The pandemic has driven the fashion industry into in a deep crisis, leading to an in-depth questioning not only of the incredible waste involved, but its actual role in society
Issue 458

While the effects of the global pandemic become apparent, restrictions on daily living have caused an existential crisis for the fashion industry.

“This is the largest crisis that the modern industry has ever faced,” declared Imran Amed, founding editor of

“We’re going to see a wave of insolvencies and bankruptcies as the year continues.” With shops and factories shuttered, the BBC reported that from generating an annual £2.02 trillion in global revenues, the industry saw sales plummet by 34 percent in March.

“More than 80 percent of transactions in the fashion industry still happen in physical stores,” said Amed. “Many consumers simply aren’t interested in buying clothes right now. There’s so much focus on purchasing essential items to survive during the lockdown.”

Elle cited long queues at Zara and Louis Vuitton as lockdown lifted in France, but it is unclear if fashion bosses can expect a return to normal in their profit lines. Though clothing is a basic human necessity, the industry is founded on the principle of inbuilt obsolescence to the point of fetishism.

Shortening seasons has long been an issue, and the pressure this causes is a likely factor in the suicide of designers such as Alexander McQueen. With high streets stores marketing new collections at ever- rowing speed, pressure to produce and sell quickly has driven down supply-chain costs.

Berlin-based non-profit Sustain Your Style states that brands now release 52 micro seasons annually, equating to 80 billion garments. Every season, tonnes of clothes languish unsold and are destroyed.

Injustices are particularly acute in overseas production. As Tansy Hoskins, author of Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World, discussed on my podcast Future Heist, companies have severed the link between branding and manufacturing. The newer, outsourced model allows for full exploitation of the
Global South.

Tansy explains, “the other benefit of going over to Bangladesh or the Philippines…, is that, oh, look! All these pesky environmental regulations have gone. All these regulations about providing healthcare and maternity care and creches, or a living wage… What a lovely corporate playground we now have!”

Since the pandemic, Western brands have cancelled orders from suppliers. Forbes estimate these exceed £2.26 billion, affecting at least 1.2 million workers in Bangladesh alone, a country which relies on the garment trade for around 80 percent of exports. “More than 70 percent said they were unable to provide their workers with some income when furloughed and 80.4 percent said they were unable to provide severance pay when order cancellations resulted in worker dismissals.”

The industry causes environmental devastation. Sustain Your Style estimates that there is 35kg of textile waste per person with 400 percent more clothes produced than 20 years ago. Twenty percent of water pollution comes from the garment industry, and 190,000 tons of microplastics go into the oceans.

It is no coincidence that one of Extinction Rebellion’s founders is an ex-fashion designer. Clare Farrell told me: “I didn’t want to pander to the desires of the retail elite, to be involved in the churning out of postmodern crap. Commodifying, cheapening and using anything…to make a profit; usually for ruthless, horrible men…at the top of this chain.”

Sustainable fashion is now a booming business. Not only shopping but international travel and social contact is currently suspended, a key part of the fashion machine for photo shoots and shows. This has forced the industry to reevaluate.

American Vogue editor Dame Anna Wintour recently told Naomi Campbell: “I think it’s an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and to look at our lives, and to rethink our values, and to really think about the waste, and the amount of money, and consumption, and excess that we have all indulged in and how we really need to rethink what this industry stands for.”

This is an incredible statement from a fashion titan. Yet many in fashion claim an interest in sustainability — but only if it makes profit-making more efficient and promotes their reputation. Sustain Your Style has a whole section on “Positive Shopping”. However, it is not enough to simply tinker with the business plan of this well-heeled monster.

Fast fashion offers consumers clothing at bargain basement prices. Ethically-produced clothing is prohibitively expensive. The pandemic has raised old arguments about overpopulation, but the real human crisis is the distribution of resources.

Clothing should be created to meet need and for individual expression. The pandemic has provided a glimpse of a different system.

In 2018, Burberry caused outrage for incinerating unsold items, which in reality is a widespread practice. Since March, its Yorkshire factory has manufactured medical gowns and masks.

Independent designer Silvia Pellegrino has halted luxury line Chouchou to make nonmedical grade masks, designed for protection and style. These efforts show the beginning rather than the limit of what fashion could be for under a new society.

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