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Is Luxury Fashion Innocent?

By Daria Iwon (Future-Proof Blog)

It is becoming increasingly clear and more widely known that the fashion industry has many flaws. Lack of representation, the exploitation of workers, the waste, the pollution; these are often issues we associate with fast fashion and its low-cost clothing. No matter how much they try to tell us they’re sustainable and “committed to empowering all” (you’re not empowering all if you exploit workers, Missguided), we know that their Corporate Responsibility Statements are nothing but long, meandering sentences that show little to no action, and quite frankly, are a nightmare to read.

Luxury fashion, the divine space at the opposite end of the industry spectrum, seems far removed from the workings of fast fashion. It often personifies craftsmanship and quality by painting a delightful picture of rolling hills in Italy, where happy, experienced artisans cut and hand sew leather handbags in brightly lit ateliers. As much as I have always loved watching the behind-the-scenes videos of luxury production, I realise these artfully directed snippets show only half the truth; the reality isn’t always as magical.

Image by Kyre Song

The issues that exist in the luxury fashion market are not so dissimilar to those of fast fashion, and unfortunately are also to do with a major lack of transparency in the supply-chain. It is often forgotten that the supply-chain does not start at the production of clothing; the issue is much bigger than just the making of apparel.

What about the fabric? The threads? The zippers? Many consumers have zero idea about where the fabric or thread came from, whether it was processed by people working ethically at living wage, and whether the environment suffered in the process. Unfortunately, many brands don’t know either. It is easy enough to order from a supplier without finding out how and where the fabric was dyed, where the thread was spun, or whether the people who harvested the cotton were actually children. This lack of traceability is detrimental to the environment and the workers, and many luxury brands need to do better to manage every step of their creative process. Blissful ignorance doesn’t cut it.

This leads into the issue of the popular materials often seen on luxury runways; silk and leather. Silk is a fabric which has become synonymous with luxury. However, its practice of boiling live silkworms, use of harsh chemical dyes, and too often the use of child labour is anything but glamorous (350,000 children were reported by the Human Rights Watch to be working in India’s silk industry in 2003, and the issue prevails today). Fortunately, silk production can be done right and in a transparent and traceable way, which minimises its effect on the people and the environment (read this article by Good On You to find out more).

Use of leather in particular pays a high environmental cost. Originating mainly from bovine animals, leather is most commonly used for shoes, belts and handbags. The process is extremely water intensive, and contributes greatly to deforestation and the clearing of the Amazon rainforest to house the cattle, and to grow its food. Furthermore, leather tanning, which stops it from deteriorating, is an extremely toxic process requiring chemicals such as chromium; a known carcinogen, devastatingly poisonous to the environment and the workers. As with silk, tanneries have been known to employ children as young as 10 to treat this popular material, leaving them with side effects such as skin reactions, liver damage, and long term cancer, to name a few.

Luxury fashion often also contributes to the issue of textile and apparel waste, just like fast fashion (I cover this in ‘The Resale Economy: An Exciting Solution To a Modern Day Problem’).

Image by m0851

Aside from the lack of consideration for the sustainability of materials and poor management and transparency of the supply-chain, it is assumed that the high price of luxury comes with a guarantee of ethics, but is that true? No. Luxury brands are not exempt from using cheap labour. Behind the disguise of exquisite design and unmatched craftsmanship, is an army of underpaid workers; “behind the gloss is the same dirt. The same factories and the same working conditions,” states Tansy Hoskins in her article for The Guardian. For example, the same factories in Moldova producing for companies like Primark have been found to manufacture clothing for high-end designers such as Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace.

In addition, the extremely high amount of Covid-19 cases in Italy is suspected to be partly linked to the large population of undocumented migrant Chinese workers producing luxury goods in underground factories in Prato and Milan. Tens of thousands of seamstresses and leather workers are forced to work, eat, sleep and pray in extremely cramped conditions, not abiding to the new 2m regulations, and excluding workers from receiving healthcare due to the lack of paperwork; these are perfect conditions for the spreading of the virus.

Italy, like most countries, has laws in place to ensure minimum wage and safe working conditions. However, those laws still get broken, even by luxury designers. As Andrea Calistri, owner of third-gen leather business Sapaf, states in a Los Angeles Times article:

“When you have a product like Prada or Dolce & Gabbana, you are not supposed to use illegal workers. If a customer pays 1,000 euros for a bag, he has a right to expect not only the best materials and the best creation but also a respected legal process.”

He is absolutely right. It seems maximising profits relies too heavily on the use of underpaid and illegal workers within the world of many fashion brands.

Even in the UK, luxury brands are known to pay shockingly low wages to their workers, and as Amy Hulme, the programme manager at the Living Wage Foundation, points out “there are no retailers- either high street or high end- registered as paying the living wage to shop staff in Britain.” Why is this still happening? How is it possible that handbags are being sold for hundreds of pounds, while the workers are still being paid below living wage (£10.75 for London and £9.30 for the rest of UK)? The common use of unpaid internships in luxury fashion is a whole other deep well of issues… (check out @fashionworkie on Instagram to find out more about unpaid internships and the fight to abolish them).

It is clear that the issues of exploitation throughout the supply-chain, as well as the common lack of consideration for sustainable material choice and waste management, are not just a fast fashion problem. Luxury designers need to play a key part in changing the industry for the better and lead by example. Yet the 2020 Fashion Revolution Transparency Report shows many high-end labels disclosing next to no information about their supply-chain (even falling behind brands like H&M).

Fortunately, the G7 summit of August 2019 brought together 250 leading international brands to discuss the industry’s objectives for minimising the environmental impact under the Fashion Pact. This pact aims to join the fight in stopping the global temperature rising by 2 degrees Celsius above the Earth’s baseline, the rising of which fashion has greatly contributed to over the last few decades.

This is a great step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Both fast fashion and luxury brands need to step up and disclose their plans towards sustainability and how they plan on bridging the wage gap of the employees in their supply chain, while providing them with a legal and safe space to work in. Then they need to act upon those.


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