When Missguided hit the headlines last month with the launch of its £1 bikini, views were mixed. While the bikini sold out numerous times, some consumers expressed concern about what the stunt meant for the people manufacturing the clothes.
Missguided was quick to assure customers that it had adsorbed the additional cost of making the garment. Owner of the Manchester-based online retailer, Nitin Passi, told The Observer that the pricing of the bikini was a marketing stunt.
“Our £1 bikini was sourced no differently to anything else we offer. It was made by one of our audited supplier partners and with the same meticulous attention to detail as every item on our site, whether it’s £20 or £200,” he said.
However Anna Bryher, advocacy director for the fashion campaign group Labour Behind the Label, told SM while the brand had absorbed the cost, selling garments at such a low cost is still damaging to the industry.
“It indicates to consumers that the effort and skill that goes into the making of clothing is minimal. It builds the expectation that clothes should be cheap and disposable, and that we have a temporary relationship with our products and no concern for the people who make them.”
While promotions and discounts in fashion aren’t a new concept, Missguided’s stunt just so happened to coincide with the UK government’s rejection of 18 recommendations made by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) to regulate the fashion industry. The recommendations highlighted concerns over the environmental and social impact of the industry.
The EAC had called for mandatory environmental targets for retailers with turnovers above £36m, a 1p tax on garments to fund a recycling scheme, as well as rewards for firms that design products with lower environmental impacts.
EAC chair Mary Creagh (Labour) said: “Ministers have failed to recognise that urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the earth.”
Ben Muis, executive director and consultant at fashion business consultancy Conceptable, told SM rejection of the measures demonstrated a wider issue around participation in voluntary schemes and a lack of legislation around sustainability in the fashion industry.
“What this rejection does not take into account is the unique position of the fashion industry and the size and impact of the industry as a whole. A fashion brand will launch hundreds of new products every season and some do every month. The pressure to deliver such a variety at speed and on budget creates a very different pressure cooker within the industry. If it does not have to conform to rules, it generally won’t.”
While fashion retailers such as H&M, Zara have made commitments on sustainability, Muis has doubts about how the favoured model of low cost/high volume production used in fast fashion could ever truly be sustainable.
“There is no way the current flow of product could ever become sustainable unless processes, material creation, care and end of life principles are specifically designed to make sustainability an inevitable outcome. Putting some more sustainable or less damaging components or fabrics in the collection falls far short of the real world requirements,” he said.
In 2010, H&M launched its Conscious collection, which it said used “sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester”. Meanwhile earlier this year, Boohoo announced its recycled polyester collection. According to Nicole Davidson, freelance buyer and consultant, while “green collections” are a step in the right direction, they could also be seen as “greenwashing”.
“If the rest of your business doesn't reflect that, then I just don’t feel green collections are enough. However, I am on the fence about it because it does make a statement. I think the more we buy from those green collections, the more they will sell them,” she told SM.
She added while most of those working in purchasing understand the importance of having continuous, open and honest dialogue with suppliers to ensure items are being made ethically and sustainably, buyers are constantly put under pressure to make margins and reduce prices.
As a result, many aren’t able to go out to factories as regularly as necessary. Davidson said some larger brands have put budget aside to be able to do so and they are often able to avoid issues, such as outsourcing to unregulated factories.
“They have a relatively tight supplier base and only use a few suppliers so they are able to have somebody across all the different functions and teams within those factories all the time. They know what their capacity is. They know how many garments they can make per month or week and closely monitor that.”
Davidson said while ensuring garments are being made ethically takes real investment from brands, it also requires a cultural change led by consumers. “It’s just not possible to make a £2 vest top. Somebody is going to pay the price somewhere down the line.”
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