The Great Debate: Should we boycott fast fashion brands?

Is it better to stop buying altogether or will that do more harm than good?

Workers sew plaid shirts on the production line of the Fashion Enterprise garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Bangladesh authorities said they were accelerating rescue efforts at the factory complex that collapsed last week as hopes fade for more survivors after the nation’s biggest industrial disaster. Bangladesh’s labor law requires safety measures such as fire extinguishers and easily accessible exits at factories. Jeff Holt/Bloomberg
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Every week, we get two people with opposing views to debate a trending topic. This week, The National's fashion expert Sarah Maisey and lifestyle blogger/sustainable fashion advocate Nada El Barshoumi are discussing whether or not it will do any good to boycott fast fashion brands.

Sarah Maisey: Last year was an awakening for many of us, as we came to understand exactly how damaging the fashion industry is to our planet. Fast fashion, in particular, with its wear-it-once-and-throw-it-away allure, has got to stop, and tough though it sounds, boycotts are the fastest way to get that message across. If we stop buying it, then guess what – manufacturers will stop making it.

Nada Elbarshoumi: While I agree the fast fashion industry is incredibly damaging to our environment, it's also a complex beast with many heads, whose negative effects extend far beyond the carbon footprint of manufacturing or the tonnes of garment waste that ends up in landfills each year.

Bangladeshi activists pretend to be dead, wrapped in blankets,  following a deadly fire in a garment factory during a protest in Dhaka on November 29, 2012. Police arrested three managers of Tazreen Fashion factory hit by a fire, following charges that they stopped workers from leaving the burning plant when the fire alarm sounded, insisting that it was just a routine drill, referring to a weekend blaze at a local garment factory that left 110 people dead and more than 100 injured.  AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo by STR / AFP)

We know major fast fashion companies (think Zara, Forever 21 and H&M) have been criticised for human rights breaches in their factories. Exploitative working conditions include terrible wages, appalling safety conditions and a high risk of harassment or abuse for female workers. But, for many women living in poverty-stricken countries, a job in the textile industry is the best of a bad situation.

SM: No one can deny the fast fashion industry is rife with poor practices, with workers having to endure appalling conditions, but continuing to pay for it is not the solution. These terrible factories exist because we as consumers demand an ever-new supply of cheap clothes, which allows unscrupulous factory owners to cut corners to turn a profit. By buying the clothes we are rewarding bad practice. Instead, if we stop funding it, we deliver a message that this behaviour is no longer acceptable.

NEB: You're right, consumer demand is what fuels this industry and the deplorable practices that come with it, but we urgently need to consider the other side of the coin. A blanket boycott would lead to the shutting down of factories, forcing garment workers, many of whom are women, to go from a poor job to no job at all. Even worse, some will end up in even more dangerous situations, such as prostitution.

Ultimately, boycotting fast fashion doesn't address the core human effect of the industry: atrocious working conditions.

SM: I agree boycotts will affect the most vulnerable in this situation. However, consumers have the power to push for change. The key to making the boycotts work is not only to cease buying fast fashion, but to also put our money into slow fashion instead. It might cost more, but it is higher quality and garments are made by people in better working conditions.

If factory owners see this is where the money is, they will cater to it. There might be a short period of hardship for workers, but as the factories switch to making better-quality products, most workers will probably be rehired to meet that demand. As consumers, we have to accept responsibility that we all helped create this mess, but that we can all help solve it. Consumers have real power. It's about time we used it.

If we all woke up tomorrow and decided to stop buying fast fashion at the drop of a hat, the effect on hundreds of thousands of workers across the world would be devastating

NEB: I think boiling the effect of a mass boycott to "short-term hardships for workers" doesn't give it the gravitas it deserves. The vast majority of garment workers in the fast fashion industry earn 40 cents (Dh1) or less an hour for the work that they do. They simply don't have the means to free themselves from the oppression they're under because they rely on that income to survive.

If we all woke up tomorrow and decided to stop buying fast fashion at the drop of a hat, the effect on hundreds of thousands of workers across the world would be devastating. Instead of solving one issue, we’d be creating one that is arguably even more detrimental.

It's so easy for us, the privileged consumers, to call for a mass boycott, because we won't starve, be out of work or have to subject ourselves to abuse to support our families. Quite simply, we will never have to face the consequences that would bring.

The solution we need is one that addresses the core problematic issues within the fashion industry to bring about systemic change. That starts with raising awareness of the problems in the industry, holding fast fashion retailers accountable (through movements such as Fashion Revolution) and calling for an overhaul of working conditions and wages.

SM: I take your point, and the approach of raising awareness is great, but it is painfully slow. I am not sure we have the luxury of time any more. In 2018, the UN declared we have 12 years left to prevent dangerous climate change. We need to dramatically change our thinking, our lifestyles and our habits to make that happen. Terrifyingly, nearly two years have slipped past already, and we have done next to nothing. If we want to save this beautiful planet we are going to have to move much, much faster – however difficult it is going to be.

We need to boycott industries that treat the planet and its people as sources of profit

Yes, it will be extremely tough, and yes the brunt will be felt by those least able to withstand it, but there is simply too much at stake to do anything else. We are running out of time. We need to boycott industries that treat the planet and its people as sources of profit and instead invest in people and companies that are trying to do the right thing. If we can affect change by boycotting fast fashion, then I don't see what other course of action we can take.

NEB: I'm also all for preaching conscious consumption – in the words of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, we all need to "buy less, choose well and make it last". Supporting slow fashion brands that espouse ethical and eco-friendly practices is also key. Basically, we need to show fast fashion retailers that there is money to be made when you do things the right way.