UK-based online fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing has once again found itself in the middle of a scandal due to their latest sale.
By Inés van Berkel
‘’Pink Friday! Up to 99% off absolutely everything’’ reads the banner on their website. Once you click the link, you find yourself in a sea of items starting at £0.04. Pretty Little Thing or PLT, as well as Nasty Gal or MissPap, are owned by the Boohoo group. The fashion conglomerate known for its immense catalogue and low prices has an estimated value of £5.2 billion, yet has been accused several times of paying their factory workers in Leicester as little as £3.50 an hour. 40% of their clothes are produced in the UK, whilst the rest comes from different countries all over South-East Asia, where garment workers’ rights are almost nonexistent. Their treatment of workers has been accused of modern slavery and has made Boohoo’s share price fall often as it makes its way back into the news.
PLT’s Pink Friday sale has quickly become the talk of the day on social media. On the one hand, there are people mourning the fact that the skirt they wanted (now for only £0.40) has sold out. On the other, those criticising the marketing stunt. The truth is, there are many reasons why this sale should not be taking place.
With a global pandemic having taken over the entire year, most of the UK being in lockdown and recommending people to stay home, does one really need another dress for a night out? Are a pair of earrings essential at the minute? The truth is, quite simply, no.
While the COVID crisis has brought unemployment and poverty to a rise and caused many to be struggling to keep warm this winter, the reason behind this sale isn’t to let people in need purchase a well needed warm jumper at a lower price. Scrolling through the items on the website, one will quickly see that they are the type of clothes aimed at parties or nights out. Two things that aren’t happening at the moment, and most certainly, aren’t essential.
I’m convinced that the lack of social life over the last months surely has brought a halt to the sale of these types of items, which has caused them to be heavily discounted at the minute. But before filling up your basket with 20 items that won’t be worn for the next few months, you should stop and think: ‘’Do I really need this or am I just impressed by the price drop?’’ And not just that, let’s ask PLT if they’re releasing these items at a sale because they care about them actually going somewhere, or if it’s just an easy way to make a quick buck before throwing all leftover clothes into a dump somewhere.
Back in July, Boohoo was once again found in the middle of a scandal when its warehouses in the UK were described as ‘a breeding ground for Coronavirus’. Most of the UK found itself in lockdown with shops closing and many people working from home. However, online sales and purchases kept taking place, causing some workers to continue risking their lives during 12-hour shifts in crowded warehouses where the orders for non-essential items kept coming in.
Whilst the lockdown taking place at the minute might not be as strict as in March, the reality is that COVID cases are still on the rise and many are keeping themselves safe by staying home and not going to the High Street to shop. Instead, online retail therapy comforts those in lockdown but ups the workload for those who are already struggling with inhumane working conditions in warehouses all over the country.
So once again, we ask not only the consumer, but the company as well: are £0.04 earrings worth the lives of those who are in charge of packing and distributing them?
CONTRIBUTION TO FAST-FASHION
The definition of fast-fashion is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. Sound familiar? Almost every clothing brand we use in our day to day life is a fast-fashion brand. It follows a pattern of mass-producing different items in a short span of time to keep up with trends.
In exchange for cheap, trendy clothes, thousands of people are exploited and the environment is in pieces. Most clothes aren’t made in Europe, they’re taken to places where worker’s rights are limited or even nonexistent. Production sites have moved location often during the years, always on the lookout for cheap labour. It’s the cheap labour cost that allows these clothes to be so affordable.
It has an environmental effect as well. 10% of our carbon emission comes from fashion production, which grows larger every year. Of all those clothes, 85% end up in a dump every year. With trends constantly changing and mass-production of times, it’s no surprise that a lot of it ends up unused.
Companies like PLT with such an immense catalogue of almost-identical pieces of clothing in every size, colour and shape ready to be shipped instantly have thousands of items of clothing leftover at the end of the season. Some of it ends in sales like this one, but most of it just gets thrown out.
So, what’s the answer then? What do we do?
The truth is that ending fast-fashion isn’t as easy as it may sound. Whilst many of us are aware of the problems behind it, the truth is that for many people, fast-fashion is the only type of accessible fashion. It’s cheap and easily available, just a click or a walk down the High Street away. Whilst it may not be the most durable and ethical option, for many it’s the only one they have, and it’s something that is often forgotten when it comes to shaming those who take part in it.
The fashion industry relies heavily on our culture, where we celebrate individuality and expressing oneself through fashion. On top of that, our constant changing trends make us want to buy the latest items to keep up with what’s considered cool. And it’s not just an individual choice, owning only a few items of clothing, repeating them and not getting with the times affects the way people perceive us. It can affect our personal relationships as well as professional opportunities. There are so many issues around how the fashion industry affects our day to day lives that need to be tackled from the source. And many people will still wonder, where do I start?
And that’s where the issue comes in, for example, with this Pretty Little Thing sale. It’s not as easy as to just tell people not to buy from them. As discussed before, there are plenty of reasons as to why fast-fashion brands are unethical and need to be dealt with. But our actions as individuals aren’t going to fix that. One person not buying from them won’t stop the exploitation of people in the global south or the environmental impact.
On top of that, we need to think about the reasons why people are so eager to buy from these brands. Maybe it’s the fact that their self-esteem heavily relies on how they’re perceived by other people, and wearing the latest coolest outfits helps with that. Maybe it’s because as a society, we talk about ‘outfit-repeating’ as a bad thing, and criticise those who can’t keep up with the times for wearing ‘outdated’ clothes. For many people, achieving this cultural status can only be achieved through sales and fast-fashion, as they cannot afford to keep up an ethical way. Ethical clothing, whilst often fantastic for workers and the environment, isn’t always accessible, and we shouldn’t demonise those who can’t access it.
There is a conversation to be had in everyone’s life about what we buy, how often we buy it, from where, and most importantly: why. Everybody’s situation is different and changes over time as society changes too. Which is why we can’t view people’s choices in a vacuum, it’s important we take in mind every aspect of society that pushes them towards it.
However, going back to the PLT sale, there is absolutely no need to put warehouse workers in danger by making them pack and distribute cheap earrings, bikinis and party dresses. A multi-billion pound company like Boohoo should know better than that. And as consumers, whilst we’re not those putting the idea in place, we are the ones taking part in it. We need to hold companies accountable, but we also need to educate one another on our actions and have those awkward conversations.
It’s a difficult conversation to have, as we don’t want to shame the people who are taking part in these sales because it’s their only chance into getting the cultural capital that others acquire throughout the year with other brands or prices. But we also can’t look past the fact that most of the shopping that this sale is aimed at, is non-essential and pure consumerism. We need to think about the system as a whole and how we’re all part of it one way or another.
With everything that’s going on, let’s consider our actions not just in an individual way. Let’s think about how they affect everyone and everything around us. We need to discuss how buying from cheap fast-fashion companies like PLT every other week isn’t okay, but we also need to talk about how doing it from more expensive fast-fashion retailers isn’t right either. Let’s talk about how we need to shop less, thrift more and buy locally. But let’s also talk about how many people can’t afford that, or can’t find their sizes in other places. There is a lot of talking to be done, and maybe the scandal around this sale will do that. But most importantly, we need to talk about how those in charge of situations like these, the real people behind it, are the ones who need to be held accountable.