• Sun, 31, May, 2020 - 5:00:AM

The monster in our closets: how COVID19 placed a spotlight on the failings of the fashion industry

As Aotearoa went into alert level three, and then four, a lot of medical professionals considered buying our own scrubs to wear at work. I was working in a medical subspecialty and didn’t really need scrubs, so in the end I decided on a capsule work wardrobe of easy-to-wash items that were worn on rotation for weeks: four tops; four pants; two jackets; and one pair of polyurethane Profi Birkis that could be thoroughly cleaned with antibacterial wipes at the end of each day.

It was a crash-course intro to an extreme version of Project 333 (a minimalism challenge where you only wear 33 items of clothing for 3 months). It really did emphasise the excess in my wardrobe. Nobody commented on the fact that I was wearing the same things over and over again (though a colleague did comment that my favourite brightly-coloured Megan Grant X Gorman pants looked like a peacock had died on my legs). And the fact that I was washing each garment after a single wear at the hospital to reduce the risk of bringing SARS-CoV-2 home meant that I became highly conscious of the quality and durability of what was in my closet.

For me, COVID19 expedited what was ultimately a thought-provoking experiment in mindful fashion. However, for millions of garment workers across the world, the pandemic catapulted their communities into economic anarchy. It was those already living precariously at the bottom of the fashion supply chain that were hardest hit by the mass cancellations of orders by major fashion brands – cancellations for garments that in many cases had already been produced or were in production. Hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers and their families now face extreme poverty; those still in employment still face job insecurity, poor working conditions, and the often abysmal labour laws and rights in their nations that have perpetuated their ongoing exploitation to prop up the never-ending stream of glittery goods produced by the international fast fashion industry.

“It’s garment workers, it’s the most vulnerable people in the supply chain that often pay in times of crisis and they don’t have a safety net,” said Elizabeth Cline (author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and The Conscious Closet: A Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good) in season 4, episode 115 of the podcast WARDROBE CRISIS with Clare Press. In this episode, Cline asserted that these garment workers are “heading into one of the most historic consequential economic and health crises of our lifetimes without money that’s owed to them. To me it’s an outrage. I’m really angry and I think that brands are legally and morally required to pay this money to factories.”

As New Zealanders transitioned to alert level 2, our malls started to fill, with queues forming outside popular stores as businesses ensure the maintenance of social distancing. It was, in some ways, comforting to see life returning to a degree of normalcy in my local mall last weekend. And in other ways, deeply unsettling that returning to business as (almost) usual seems so easy and desirable, when the hidden human costs of the fast fashion industry are so unfathomably high.


To sign the petition asking companies to #PayUp for their orders, click here.


  • Fast Fashion /
  • Human Rights /
  • labour rights /
  • Fashion /
  • COVID19 /
  • Coronavirus /
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