Culture

An Insider's Guide to the Fast Fashion Industry

"The fashion world is relentless. It's run by some really fucking crazy people, if I'm being honest."
28 February 2020, 1:42pm
An investigative piece about FF's worst excesses

We all know fast fashion is horrible for the planet. But like that horrible ex-boyfriend your friend can’t seem to shake, we keep going back to it. According to the European Environment Agency, the amount of clothes bought per person in EU countries between 1996 and 2012 increased by 40 percent. It attributes this rise to the fact that clothes are now cheaper than ever before: between 1996 to 2012, the price of clothing fell in real terms by 36 percent.

The cost of your £4 Boohoo dress may be workers being paid scandalously low, or even illegal wages, in developing countries or here at home (Leicester has become a manufacturing hub for ultra-low cost retailers, due to the speed with which British factories can turn around looks debuted on Instagram only days previously).

Don't forget increased CO2 emissions – according to a 2019 report from the Environmental Audit Committee, the textile industry creates more emissions than international aviation and shipping combined. And then there's the huge amount of waste: around 350,000 tons of clothes go to landfill or are incinerated in the UK each year.

But we already know these facts, and don't seem to care. What would make consumers sit up and take note? Maybe if they knew what was going on behind the scenes. We spoke to insiders across the industry to get their comments on what it’s really like to work in fast fashion.

THE WAREHOUSE WORKER

Jamie, 33, worked as a picker in a Boohoo warehouse in Burnley in 2014.

I worked the night shift, starting at 6PM and finishing at 6AM every night. I chose to work nights as they paid you more: an extra 50p an hour on top of the minimum wage. Boohoo never employed me directly – it was agency work, and zero hours, so you never knew until you arrived at the factory that evening whether there would be work for you. Some people would travel from a long way away, only to be told to go home. They wouldn't be paid for their commuting time.

Picking duties are so demanding. You have to hit targets every night: 1,200 units a night, 1,300 units a night, something like that. That's 100 units an hour, a person. It's relentless. You do so much walking that your feet would swell up. The worst thing you could do is take your shoes off, because you’d never be able to get them back on. Lots of people couldn't hack it – they started work on the first night and didn’t come back for the second. I don't blame them.

When you're working, you block out the physical pain. You're going backwards and forwards and up and down stairs. You're practically running to fulfil your orders. There's people running alongside you. It was dog-eat-dog – everyone just fighting to do what they could.

I think people who buy from Boohoo think the clothes are cheap because it's cheap material. But it's cheap labour. People are overworked and underpaid. I don't think anyone should have to work like that – it's pressurised work. The people were scared. I would never work there again. If anyone asked me what it was like, I would say: don't work there.

THE BUYER

Cordelia,* 32, has worked for brands including ASOS, River Island and Urban Outfitters

The fashion world is relentless. It's run by some really fucking crazy people, if I'm being honest. Fast fashion has changed so much since I started working in it 15 years ago. Everything is so much quicker. Back when I started, you used to have two big buying seasons. A bestseller would be a bestseller month in, month out. Now, we move on stuff every week, and you're lucky if you’re able to sell the same thing month-to-month. People want the new and the next. They see stuff and want it immediately, which throws traditional processes and models out of the window.

Everything has become about content. I remember when fast fashion operated on a catwalk to high street model: Topshop pioneered that. Social media is much more important now. Buyers will have a collection all planned and then run around in circles changing their mind because an influencer posted something pink online, but we all thought it was going to be about blue. You can spend thousands of pounds on shoots with incredible models and stylists, but all anyone cares about is how Sally down the road is wearing an outfit on Instagram.

I haven't ever worked anywhere where the goal has been to rip off independent designers, but I can certainly see how it happens. If one person is doing something and it becomes fashionable, you can see other imitations popping up quickly. I know of other buyers who are all over Kylie Jenner's Instagram to see what she’s wearing that night.

The quality of high street fast fashion has deteriorated. Retailers have driven downwards: they’re trying to compete with the Missguideds and Boohoos, and their quality has suffered a result. They can't keep churning out stuff at a higher price point, because people will vote with their feet.

THE STYLIST

Clara*, 29, a stylist who has worked for Boohoo and Nasty Gal

I started off as a stylist for the Boohoo website. You'd shoot between 30 and 40 looks a day in a studio. At the time, I didn't realise I was shooting a lot. I thought that was the norm.

The clothes were mainly pinned. With fast fashion, you want that sexy curve, so we pinch the clothes in at the waist to give the illusion they are well-fitted. It is false advertising, if I'm being honest. But that's what sold the product at the end of the day.

The quality of the clothes improved over the years. They found that returns cost the business too much money, so the cost went up. I still occasionally borrow Boohoo stuff for shoots, and I find that the quality has gone up.

Fast fashion uses location shoots a lot, because you’re able to sell the idea more than the actual product. I shot all over the world. If you can get the right photography style and the right angle, you can make the clothes look expensive. If you can get an influencer to wear them, even better. It’s the way the industry is moving.

THE PRODUCTION EXPERT

Kat, 38, has worked in supply chain and production management for a variety of fast fashion brands

People assume that because the US isn't a developing country that production is ethical and workers are treated fairly. But that's not the case. In fast fashion, the profit margins are so small that the buyers push for a certain dollar point, and getting it out quickly. Factories feel that they have to comply to get the order, which usually leads to workers being treated unfairly or not compensated properly.

I did a factory visit in LA a few years ago. The factory was supplying a fast fashion brand – I can't say which one. It was just a shipping container with one teeny window that was the size of a computer. All the women working there were so tense. You could tell they were too afraid to look up from their sewing machines. You would think this was happening in China or Mexico, not LA.

When I was in my early twenties, I used to buy fast fashion. Now I understand that if you can afford to make the investment in something that is high quality, you should, because it's going to last longer, and you know that the people involved in making it were treated well. The more you push down prices and treat fashion as a cheap commodity, the more you allow exploitation of people in the supply chain.

THE SALES ASSISTANT

Bella*, 19, works as a sales assistant at a brick-and-mortar fast fashion store

I find working here quite hard, to be honest. Everyone knows about climate change. The state of the environment is really important to me. Seeing the waste that goes on is difficult.

The main thing that gets me is the amount of plastic we use. I unload delivery, and every single individual piece of clothing is wrapped in plastic, then another layer of plastic, then another. A single pair of earrings can be wrapped in three layers of plastic. I spoke to my store manager about it but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "That's how it is."

Most people think that when they buy sale items they're buying full priced stock that has been marked down. But often clothes are shipped in from different stores that haven’t sold well. Sometimes we're even sent extra stock by our distributors that was never in store to start with. You think you're buying a bargain, but you're actually buying stuff that won't sell.

The quality is horrendous. I used my store discount to buy a pair of tracksuit bottoms recently, and literally on the first day I bought them they went bobbly. You'd have thought I'd had them a year, not a day.

I don't think people are moving away from fast fashion. They're just moving to online fast fashion, which if anything is worse than the fast fashion in stores.

Boohoo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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