Monday saw throngs of shoppers in England’s high streets, but it’s a stark reality from the distant supply chain workers and factory owners — many still holding out for payment from those same retailers, perhaps on declining hopes.
With stores permitted to reopen on Monday, lines gathered in locations like Oxford Circus outside Apple, Nike, Cos, Kiko and Zara. In another part of town, Westfield London in Hammersmith, teenagers sipped iced drinks and Primark bags, lounging in the sun.
Eager for sales and anything that didn’t resemble the confines of their living rooms, H&M, Zara, Apple and the clearance stalls at Foot Locker also drew pools of shoppers.
Despite Western retailers sliding up their gates and opening doors to shoppers, things are far from “normal” for apparel manufacturers in Bangladesh, which attributes 80 percent of its exports to the sector.
Even if a factory does everything right — including being a model of sustainability in its region, joining the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, becoming an early signatory to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, while driving improvement in textile chemical management alongside the ZDHC Foundation — it can still be slighted by the industry, despite being its backbone for comparatively inexpensive labor.
“I believe that the best way of bringing change is to set examples,” said Mostafiz Uddin, owner and managing director of the Bangladesh-based Denim Expert Ltd. He has been working in the apparel industry for more than 20 years and started his factory in 2009, today employing 2,000 workers. His factory aims to be a model for sustainability and his vehicle for continued visibility after media moments pass is LinkedIn, where he vocalizes the ongoing threats he and his factory workers face under the pandemic. It includes the threat of having to shutter operations entirely.
“The COVID-19 pandemic confronts lives versus livelihoods. But for the very sake of saving lives, the show must go on. Because the factory is not only the source of livelihoods for workers but also the means of materializing their lifelong dreams,” he wrote in a recent post.
Post-Rana Plaza, Uddin established the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange to improve the shattered image of the Bangladesh apparel industry, having since established multiple international showcases and events.
But COVID-19 is a different beast entirely and is one that continues to claw away at the Bangladeshi garment manufacturing industry — with little aid from Western brand partners. “Following the COVID-19 outbreak, I was shocked by the change in attitude and tone of the companies who have acted to protect themselves financially with scant regard for the effects that their decisions might have upon their manufacturing partners, myself included,” said Uddin.
Despite payments unmet months into the crisis, Uddin was able to cover 100 days of salary and Eid al-Fitr festival bonuses to workers — also taking loans from banks, friends and family.
As documented by nonprofit Remake in its viral #PayUp campaign, Arcadia Group, (which includes Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, among others); Li & Fung/Global Brands Group; Edinburgh Woolen Mill (Bonmarché, Peacocks), Inditex, and Marks & Spencer are among the many global fashion companies that have still yet to pay in full for orders completed before the coronavirus outbreak or in production when it hit.
Emails seen by WWD which detail exchanges between Denim Expert Ltd. and Arcadia Group and Peacocks confirm the reality is that repayment still isn’t being received for orders completed or for upfront cost of materials.
As early as February, Li & Fung/GBG received invoices from Denim Expert Ltd. for some $415,000 worth of goods in terms originally agreed upon in “payment at sight” — but payment has still not been received months later. In late March, the company canceled orders for goods for which Denim Expert Ltd. had already procured materials as well.
Also in March, Peacocks’ buying director sent an apologetic e-mail canceling orders and looking to resolve issues and proceed with “next steps,” after not contacting Uddin for weeks about the orders ready to ship. In a similar scenario, Denim Expert Ltd. had already extended the capital for fabric and raw materials for over 14,000 pieces of jeans set for production. Peacocks said it will decide on those goods in late June.
After teetering on the edge of bankruptcy last year, Topshop owner Arcadia showed more signs of strain with the group’s chief executive officer Ian Grabiner electing to receive no salary or benefits until further notice, as of April. Staffers were also furloughed so they could be eligible to receive aid from the U.K. government. In all, the group employs some 22,000 workers.
Arcadia offered a letter of cancellation for its orders with Denim Expert Ltd. at a total value of nearly $2.5 million. In April, the group offered to pay at a 30 percent discount, to which Uddin — faced with little alternative — agreed, as goods were already at a U.K. port.
Speaking about the ongoing struggles experienced by suppliers like Denim Expert Ltd., Ayesha Barenblat, founder and ceo of Remake, added: “Many of the brands with long lines as they reopen, such as C&A, Primark, Top Shop, continue to shore up their own cash at the expense of suppliers and vulnerable workers.”
Remake’s petition has since garnered more than 62,000 signatures.
“The long lines at Primark and other high street brands embodies all that is wrong with fast fashion in a nutshell. These high street brands are pacifying Western working class consumers with mounds and mounds of cheap clothes built on the back of vulnerable Black and brown women who are still fighting to be paid,” contended Barenblat.
She also echoes the studies that indicate a growing consumer sentiment for quality over quantity, adding: “My hope is more and more consumers embrace our sustainable fashion lifestyle to buy fewer better things. Our wallets and the planet cannot sustain the pace at which we have been buying. Within our community our consumers were already shifting toward sustainability, wanting experiences over cheap mounds of clothes and COVID-19 has exacerbated this shift.”
It’s not to be said that companies haven’t followed up on promises — as companies such as Adidas, PVH Corp., Target Corp. and VF Corp. have begun paying suppliers for orders completed or in production. But in a renewed era for social impact — gaining considerable energy from the Black Lives Matter movement anchored in the U.S. — continually stringing along garment workers is unlikely to bode well for brands.