Lessons from COVID: the #payup campaign

2020 has, for all of us, been marked by the Coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in over a century, possibly ever, the entire world ground to a halt, went into lockdown, and was silent. We were told to brace for change, to stay home and protect ourselves and our loved ones, to limit ourselves to only the “necessities”.

So arose the question: is fashion a necessity?

Well, for the 430 million people working in textile production, it definitely is!

Across the world, 1 in 8 people is involved in garment production [1], anywhere from fibre production, processing, dyeing, cutting or sewing. This workforce makes an estimated 80-100 million pieces of clothing per year, most of which is exported to Europe and the US [2].

This system has always been precarious. The emergence of fast fashion and the huge increase in consumerism over the past 30 years has led to an industry that values speed and profit over everything else.

Garment workers are placed in impossible positions as their countries’ economies shift to rely entirely on the export of clothing. Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest garment exporters, is an export economy, 80% of whose exports are fashion items for the west [3]. Its impoverished citizens have no choice but to join garment factories, despite the dangers involved. Garment workers, 80% of whom are women [4], work in unsafe conditions, in illegal factories, under abusive managers. Factories regularly collapse or burn down, workers fall ill from the chemicals used in fabric dyes, and women are sexually harassed by male managers.

Enter Covid-19. As the pandemic hit, brands saw their stores closing down, saw people staying home, saw the economy take a hit, and realised their own position. In an interview with Remake, a women-lead, nonprofit organisation, Marissa Nuncio, Director of the Garment Worker Center, explained that garment workers, in the US, were not seen as an essential industry, and ¾ of the LA garment industry shut down [Watch here].

Workers were sent home with no warning, no pay, and no idea when they could return. Fashion brands began earnestly cancelling their orders to manufacturers, even when those orders were already on their way. Arcadia, owners of Topshop, Burton, Dorothy Perkins and more, cancelled orders to the tune of over £100m [5]. Debenhams demanded a 90% discount on clothes that had already reached UK ports [6]. Around the world, garment workers were left with no income, some literally surviving on borrowed rice [7].

Then, on the 30th of March 2020, Remake, launched the #payup campaign.

Spearheaded by the organisation, the campaign included a petition, via the online platform change.org, and a strong social media presence to spread the word and garner support for garment workers worldwide. Remake demanded that brands pay their suppliers the full cost of production in a timely manner. They called out brands by name and kept an updated list of who had paid and who hadn’t.

In the fashion industry, this was almost unique. 

The reason the industry continues to function despite the horrors involved is that the entire process is shrouded in mystery. Consumers are not supposed to know or think about the people who make their clothes – in fact, brands themselves often don’t know their entire supply chain [8]. By bringing these issues to social media, straight to the consumers’ front door, Remake effectively roused support for garment workers and turned the tide against brands. Fashion brands’ Twitter feeds and Instagram posts began to be inundated with requests to #payup.

Over 5 months later, the campaign has been hugely effective.  Over $22 million has been paid to garment suppliers worldwide [9]. Several brands have made and delivered on promises to pay in full, buckling under public pressure. Remake’s petition garnered 274,007 supporters, and has become a stepping stone to something greater. Now, Remake have launched a “a movement to reform fashion” (see payupfashion.com) and put garment workers first. 

But the fight is not over. 

The #payup campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium highlight over 25 major brands who have not yet paid suppliers.

Garment workers around the world are still working under the same conditions, and brands continue to allow their exploitation. If one thing can be said about Covid-19, it is that it allowed for the exposition of the fashion industry as the monster that it is. It allowed people to learn and become part of the solution. It allowed us all time to slow down, reflect, and realise what is most important. I truly hope that this change is permanent.

By: Sofia Voudouroglou (@thesustainablefashionguru on Instagram)

Featured Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

About the author

Sofia (@thesustainablefashionguru on Instagram)

Sofia is a sustainable fashion activist and educator, who has recently written for organisations including Fashion Roundtable. As the founder of her own business, Sewing with Sofia, she hopes to encourage us to develop an ethical mindset towards fashion and openly discusses the challenges in implementing systemic change.

(Permission granted by Author to share her logo)

Published by Holly Leslie

Full-time Cancer Researcher + Freelance Science Writer | MRes, BSc | Since discovering my passion for science writing during my final year of undergraduate study, I've written articles for University newspapers, The Gaudie and Redbrick and two Science magazines, Wonk! and the Glasgow Insight to Science and Technology (GIST)

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