Recent reports in the UK have spotlighted issues of worker exploitation by some suppliers of ultra-fast-fashion companies like Boohoo, exposing the human cost of getting our consumer goods fast and cheap. And, as with many of the weaknesses, failures, and inequities exposed by the global coronavirus pandemic, we’re faced with some uncomfortable truths.
The reality of the situation is that the economic system benefiting so many with higher standards of living and luxury goods also causes a great deal of damage and suffering for poor and marginalized people as well as the environment, which, again, tends to negatively and disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised.
As a society, we’ve largely turned a blind eye to many of these situations. Why? These businesses provide products that consumers demand and adore, and at prices many can afford. Ultimately, immediate access to cheap consumer goods comes at a cost – often environmental – but in this case it’s exploited workers.
Many of these workers are immigrants, possibly illegal, who have little or no choice but to suffer working in unsafe conditions, and often, far below the minimum wage. With no protection of workers’ rights, they are exploited, having to put themselves, their families, and their communities at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.
Most often we hear of these situations in sweatshops in third-world countries, which is neither right nor acceptable. This time, however, it’s happening in our own back yard.
In reality, if you’re prepared to buy something at a very low price, you’re probably doing it at the expense of somebody else.
If you’re going to compete in ultra-fast fashion, you’ve got to manufacture it near the demand to be able to respond quickly and cheaply enough. And seeing a company sustain this business model, we should have been asking the question, “How can this be done so cheaply, so quickly?” Because, without raising your prices, only a few scenarios are possible if you’re not sourcing impossibly cheap material and you’re not continually increasing productivity. Either you’re selling the hot item of the moment at a loss or you’re paying lower wages.
Now that the pandemic and the “new abnormal” of daily life and doing business has been shining light on unethical business practices, it’s time to acknowledge the problem, investigate it, and, most importantly, do something to fix it.
The Impact of the Influencer Economy
The speed and reach of communication available to people now, especially through social media platforms, has enabled the rise of the influencer economy, the driving force behind ultra-fast fashion. Fans see their favorite Insta-celeb wearing a certain t-shirt and they “have to have it” as close to instantly as possible.
In a world where the gated promised land of fame and celebrity has been opened to personalities seen on reality TV, Instagram, and TikTok, influencers have so far enjoyed the perks of brand alignment as they continued building their own brand, so long as they keep driving sales and revenue.
The growing value of sustainably, responsibility and ethical business practices
But those who live by the sword, die by the sword.
Most customers want to buy from companies that ethically source, ethically manufacture, and ensure there’s no slave, child or underpaid labor in the supply chain.
When anyone can take to social media to expose unethical practices or conditions, corporate brands have had to pay closer attention to their practices and associations in a time when consumers expect increasingly higher standards of sustainability and corporate responsibility.
The same expectations of responsibility are now applied to influencers. Any display of unacceptable behavior can get an influencer canceled, by fans and sponsors alike. Additionally, influencers may find themselves on the hook for having aligned with a sponsor who is discovered to have been conducting unethical or illegal business activities. In the age of ubiquitous and easily accessible information, ignorance is no excuse.
Ensuring the Health and Safety of the Workforce
The pandemic continues to spotlight the fact that the poor are most susceptible through circumstance, by having to do high-risk jobs where they’re not paid fairly or properly protected by employers.
We’re seeing huge changes in manufacturing facilities to provide a safe working environment that ensures the health and safety of the workforce. Social distancing policies are enforced. Perspex separators are installed. Hand sanitization stations are readily available. And shift changeovers are being extended to ensure that machines and equipment are sanitized and that teams of workers from different shifts are always separated.
In this environment, it’s impossible for companies to remain as productive and to be safe at the same time with social distancing and other precautionary measures in place to protect the workforce.
But forward-thinking companies will find ways to be more productive. For example, they might create additional shifts and spread employees out over multiple shifts to ensure proper social distancing and frequent cleaning down of the site and equipment.
Technology can also have a huge part to play. We’re seeing more companies leverage automation, using Industry 4.0 technologies to augment their human employees to increase productivity and to boost profitability.
Fast Fashion: Why Supply Chain Visibility is a Win-Win
Building your business on premises of old technology and breathtakingly tight margins to compete by keeping prices low and delivery swift had been tough but doable in a relatively stable economic context. Until the slightest disruption – or a global pandemic – turns your business upside down along with the rest of the world.
Ensuring sustainable and ethical practices and processes requires clear visibility across the entire enterprise and business network of partners and representatives.
Every area of a business’s operations must be found ethically sound, from employee experience, internal and external policies, working conditions and culture, to positions and actions supporting social, political, and environmental issues.
The excuse that a company did not know that their supplier was exploiting their workers and putting them at risk is no longer valid. Especially when a supplier is in their own country rather than a country or a continent away.
Keeping employees safe, healthy, and fairly compensated should always be a top priority. But as your workplace faces new challenges in a world of evolving requirements and hazards, new approaches are needed to identify and mitigate risks of exposure and infection and communicate them effectively to all stakeholders.
Click here to learn more about Environment, Health and Safety and how it can help respond and recover.