On December 21st 2019, the first case of an unknown pneumonia surfaced in China. In such a crucial date in the calendar, nobody would have suspected the impact to be encountered 5 months on. The world as we know it has come to a standstill for one disease, COVID-19. Nation to nation, critical measures are put in place to reduce the spread of the disease. Limiting social contact, furloughing millions of employees and the closure of businesses worldwide has led to the current state; lockdown.
When will it all end? The answer everybody wants to know, but no one does know.
Frustration is on the minds of the world’s population, with millions furloughed from the jobs they love, told to work from home. Restricted to the same four walls, constrained to only exercise each day.
How are you coping in this pandemic, both financially and mentally?
Every industry and individual is asking the very same questions to themselves, it is a difficult answer to provide. The fashion industry and workers are no different.
The impact on Bangladesh and UK garment operations
Fashion brands outsource production to countries with supply chains that are more effective than their country of origin. Brands such as Zara, H&M and Gap are no different, outsourcing to Bangladesh. With the legal minimum wage being £73.85 per month, working an average of 240 hours per month without overtime. Making Bangladesh more cost effective for fashion businesses to increase profit margins.
Imagine a scenario in the UK with minimum wage being that low in a normal climate, it would not happen. So why is it acceptable in Bangladesh?
Due to the global pandemic, fashion brands are restricting their supply chain and activity. Cancelling fashion shows and limiting the release of new ranges reduces the need for garment production and material purchases. Repercussions have condemned the Bangladesh fashion sector to a set revenue loss of $6 billion, developing negative impacts to the industry that makes up 80% of Bangladesh imports, employing over 4 million people. The $6 billion set loss has driven as many 1,089 garment factories to become demand deprived, enforcing factory closures with millions of garment workers sent home without pay, with no estimated date of return. The decision for closures has created major difficulties between Bangladesh garment workers as no work means no pay. Preventing the affordability of essential living costs such as rent, food and water. Developing potential mental health and hunger risks, amid the increasing likelihood of crippling poverty of families and individuals.
Within the UK all clothing stores have closed whereas the online formats have stayed in operation. ASOS have reduced the amount of employees on shift, capitalising on the governments scheme to furlough some of their employees. However, employees who are still working maintain a cautious, self-distancing approach using PPE from shift start to shift end. Despite this, customer deliveries have had delays whilst sales have reduced due to the lack of demand for clothing. However safety is most important in these times as the common processes within fashion warehouses is to quarantine items received or returned from suppliers or customers for 48 hours. In aid of reducing the risk of any possible COVID-19 essence on items.
The re-opening of garment factories
Months on from closures to curb the pandemic, Bangladesh factories reopened in May to lessen the economic turmoil of the country and citizens, rebuilding the nations stability.
However is it all too soon?
The garment workers agenda is that a swift return to work will not only put their health in danger but also cause a spike in COVID-19 cases. The common dynamic worldwide is the lack of protection, the lack of PPE and the lack of health and safety. Approximately 850 Bangladesh factories are to reopen, with high volumes of garment workers becoming high risk to contract COVID-19, due to limited access to PPE.
“The global brands are happy to see the factories opening up as otherwise a whole season would have been lost,” Mohammad Abdur Razzak, secretary of the industry group, said in a statement to Associated Press. A statement which represents clothing brands having the sole mindset of sales. Reducing their morals regarding employee health to reinforce market position and reduce the likelihood of company bankruptcy.
However, the employee’s financial situation is one vital aspect to consider greatly. No work for employees, increases the likelihood of poverty. With financial restrictions in purchasing food, water and housing costs. Therefore, for employees and industries to get the all clear to return to work, full safety measures must be put in place. Regular health checks, the use of PPE and disinfection are all essential whilst limiting employees working together. All actions will reduce the likelihood of a further COVID-19 outbreak.
The need for garment workers now more than ever
Many fashion brands understand the potential economic and health benefit if factories are to re-open. It can be argued that there is the need for production of fashion and garment workers more than ever. In the sense of supporting the global pandemic with producing the necessity, PPE.
There is great lack of PPE supply for the 1.6 million NHS staff and millions of citizens to use each day. The global demand for PPE is at unprecedented levels and several countries have placed export bans on it. Therefore it’s vital fashion brands mass produce PPE for their country of origin, with all profits going to charity.
Certain brands are taking such actions, cancelling the release of their own clothing lines and fashion shows. Instead attempting to make a meaningful impact to the world as we know it. Reiss have donated 10,000 face masks and 900 scrubs to the NHS. Whilst Zalando, Louis Vuitton and Chanel have pledged to produce non-surgical protective masks for the public, with all profits being donated to national charities and public health systems. The belief needs to be that everyone should have access to a mask to protect themselves. It is time to pull together in these times of trouble and fashion brands are beginning to register that mindset.
The level of sustainability
The fashion industry accounts for 8 to 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. However the amount of garment factory closures worldwide due to COVID-19 has reduced that statistic but more can still be done in sustainability. Some fashion brands have balanced their support to the global pandemic whilst continuing strategies and methods to increase their sustainability contribution.
40 British luxury brands recently became members of Walpole’s sustainability manifesto. Which tackles the use of plastic, waste reduction, carbon emissions and the use of renewable energy. Lee Jeans have developed a new ‘back to nature’ range. Which allows consumers to compost the items they no longer want, becoming completely biodegradable. Whilst Chanel have created ‘mission 1.5’ to aim to reduce carbon footprint of all their operations and supply chain, switching to 100% renewable electricity on a global basis by 2025 and balancing residual carbon emissions. It is clear that there are many sustainability plans for the future, making changes here and now which will have long-term benefit.
The COVID-19 crisis has seen the demand for fast fashion stagnate, with minimal consumer desire to make fashion purchases. There is then no benefit to brands for releasing new clothing ranges, instead the opportunity to be more sustainable whilst supporting the need for PPE. The mindset must be to aid the here and now crisis whilst implementing sustainability strategies for a better future once we beat COVID-19.