On Sunday, Boris told us to get out and shop to reboot the economy.

Queues outside Primark on the first non-essential shopping day after lockdown

Huge queues were seen outside Primark yesterday (15th June) – the first day non-essential shops were permitted to reopen. Images and videos of these queues prompted a lot of commentary on social media shaming shoppers for buying non-essentials in a pandemic. Counter-criticism fired back accusations of “poor-shaming”.

Lots of us had hoped for a change in attitudes post-Covid, given that many people appear to have embraced a simpler life in lockdown – spending time with family, baking, walking and gardening. So seeing such an immediate return to ‘normal’ is disheartening for some.

But when the government proposes shopping as our civic duty, reducing our role in society to nothing more than consumers, why should we expect anything different?

It’s also important to remember that despite the idea that we’re ‘all in this together’, people’s experience of lockdown has been dramatically different, based on a whole host of factors – not least social class. Not everyone is in the fortunate position to be on paid furlough, with a big house and garden to enjoy in lockdown. For many, this situation has created extreme stress, redundancies, grief and compounded mental health impacts.

So in these times it’s not our fellow UK citizens buying a new summer outfit who should face criticism, but the greed of billionaire CEOs which is the driving force behind global inequality and environmental destruction – sanctioned by government inaction. As put so excellently by Potent Whisper here:

Fast fashion is a deliberate model producing cheap clothing with a short lifespan to generate perpetual consumption. As with all problems of over-consumption, those with the lowest disposable income tend to bear the least responsibility.

We can’t allow the budget fast fashion industry to evade criticism of its inherently unsustainable business practices by using UK poverty as a distraction.

Primark is not an anti-poverty campaign seeking to democratise fashion – it’s a corporation deliberately producing cheap, disposable clothing extremely rapidly, in order to unlock consumer spending and maximise profits for its shareholders.

Fashion drives consumption by cultivating feelings of inadequacy, giving rise to perceived needs.

Cheap clothes on UK high streets are effectively subsidised by the underpaid labour of working class (mostly black and brown people – great article on that point here) in other countries.

Tansy Hoskins describes fashion as “false emancipation”. Check out her must-read Twitter thread about Primark here.

Many UK citizens cannot afford to buy clothing at its true cost – a price where all parties in the supply chain are paid properly – and this is a result of the same profit-driven system which causes ever widening inequality both here and abroad.

We cannot solve UK poverty by enforcing deeper poverty on the working class in other countries.

What can you do?

We do have power to change things – but this is not limited to ‘voting with our wallets’ as consumers – we can also use our voice as UK citizens to demand action from brands and our government.

  • Whether you buy from the brands or not, add your signature to the #PayUp campaign petitions, and tag brands on social media asking them to pay outstanding bills to their suppliers for clothes already manufactured and delivered. Many brands cancelled clothing orders as soon as lockdown was announced, forcing many factories to close and lay off workers in countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar. Some are still refusing to pay, or extending payment deadlines. You can see an updated list of which brands have made a commitment to pay here.
  • Follow the campaign for the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee to continue its inquiry into the fashion industry.

“We call on our industry to join us in telling the truth.

This is a declaration of emergency for the fashion industry, but it’s also much more than that.

In an industry where co-opting green initiatives to sell more is rife,

we want commitment to making the hard truths known and taking action to demand change.”

XR Fashion Action