The pandemic exposes the true horrors of fast fashion

As retailers prepared for imminent crisis following the outbreak of Covid-19, Boohoo, one of the UK’s largest online fashion retailers, saw a huge surge in sales. Adapting to a country in lockdown at astonishing speed, Boohoo quickly unveiled a new line of loungewear, solidifying its reputation as the country’s leader of fast fashion – cheap, fashionable clothing, that takes ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and quickly turns them affordable designs to meet consumer demand.

Fast fashion has shaped an industry in which clothes are disposable, allowing the consumer to stay on top of the latest trends at extremely low costs. Much of the success of fast fashion can be attributed to the rise of the ‘influencer’. Legitimised by social media and television stars, fast fashion brands have successfully capitalised on a younger demographic desperate to imitate the aspirational lifestyles of celebrities on a shoestring budget.

But cheap clothes and fast delivery come at an ethical cost. The fast-fashion industry relies on mostly female workers in poor countries, where labour is cheap and exploitation rife, in order to quickly manufacture and sell garments of a mediocre quality, designed to be worn just a handful of times. Many of the 260 million child labourers around the world work within the fashion supply chain, manufacturing the textiles and designs to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond.

As consumers worldwide buy more clothes, the growing market for cheap items and new styles is taking its toll on the environment. On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000, the majority of which end up as thousands of bits of plastic in the ocean. Yet last year, the UK government dismissed the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on clothing consumption and sustainability, and a motion to pass a fast-fashion tax was rejected under Theresa May’s government.

Shockingly, fast fashion sales have showed no signs of slowing down in recent years, until now. The pandemic has unintentionally shone a light on the dark practices of the industry. This week, an undercover investigation found that workers at a factory in Leicester owned by Boohoo were earning between £3.50 and £4.00 per hour, with little evidence of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Amidst claims of ‘modern slavery’, more than £1.5bn has been wiped off Boohoo’s market value, the company now facing an exodus of social media influencers and retail partners.

The pandemic has impacted the decline of fast fashion more directly, with national lockdowns leaving a number of fast-fashion brands unable to survive without cheap, overseas labour and a speedy supply chain. Recent months have also seen social responsibility back at the top of the agenda, with critics of fast fashion hoping that the rise of local brands and newfound focus on sustainable lifestyles may well mark a defining moment for the sector. The pressure is now on for the fashion industry to grasp this moment and use its power to help change our relationship with clothing for the better.

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of human rights, international relations and development clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact