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COVID-19 Exacerbated the Fashion Industry’s Ugly Truths

But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Even before COVID-19 shook up entire industries and all of our lives, social injustice plagued the fashion industry. Hundreds of millions of people are held in systemic poverty everyday because 93% of brands do not pay a living wage sufficient to meet their producers most basic needs (Source: Clean Clothes Campaign, 2020). Experts estimate that less than 5% of people making clothing around the world receive a living wage, meaning 95% of producers are not earning a sufficient salary to support themselves and their dependents. And, 75% of them are women between the ages of 18 and 24 (Source: Fashion Revolution, 2017).

These statistics are nothing new; brands at large have known about these issues for years. The global pandemic has illuminated their systemic nature, however, as it’s further exacerbated and exposed the true cost of fashion on the people who make our products.

Brands' responses to COVID-19 have left producers in dire circumstances

When the pandemic hit, fashion brands canceled $40 Billion of orders, which resulted in layoffs for millions of the industry’s most vulnerable workers (Source: Remake, 2020). Brands refused to pay up for products that were already made, and have only started to do so because of pressure from labor rights activists. 70% of workers who were laid off reported they had not received their full legally mandated severance pay and 40% reported they received none of the severance pay they were legally owed (Source: Workers Rights Consortium, 2020).

It’s not that brands didn’t have the resources to support the people in their supply chains–since the start of the pandemic brands have grown 11% while decreasing workers’ wages by 21% (Source: Workers Rights Consortium, 2020)–they just weren’t willing to share their profits.

As a result of layoffs and falling incomes, workers have reported going hungry and skipping meals. According to a comprehensive study of 396 garment workers across 158 factories in nine countries, 77% of workers reported that they, or a member of their household, had gone hungry since the onset of COVID-19. 20% reported going hungry daily; 34% reported going hungry once a week. 88% reported they had reduced their food intake to account for income decreases. 75% reported they had borrowed money or accumulated debt in order to buy food (Source: Workers Rights Consortium, 2020). Many garment workers have been left to choose between going into work and getting sick, or going hungry.

There continues to be little to no accountability for fashion brands to assess and improve their impact on the people in their supply chains. At the same time, brands are hiding under the guise of being “sustainable.” 40% of 500 fashion brands recently surveyed by the Competition and Markets Authority claimed to be “eco-friendly,” but had no data to substantiate their claims.

As an industry, we need to do better for the people who make our business possible.

How we've responded to COVID-19 at Nisolo

We were affected by the pandemic just like any other brand. After being ahead of plan all year, everything changed last March. Sales took a big hit, our supply chain halted, and we were forced to make the decisions you never want to have to make in order to stay operational. Even though we had to lay off staff in the US and Peru, we honored 100% of our purchase orders and paid at least 2 weeks severance pay. In addition, we created a relief fund for our producers to support them until they could secure stable employment again. Since the launch of these efforts last April:

    • 71 of our most vulnerable shoemakers and their dependents have received support that has been used to pay for food and medical expenses.
    • We’ve hired back 47 people into our factory who are once again receiving living wages, healthcare, and benefits.
    • We’ve helped 10 former shoemakers secure other forms of employment.

Thanks to the Nisolo community, we still have funds remaining that we’re continuing to distribute.

In summary, the global pandemic affected the fashion industry more than anything has in 50 years.

Supply chains were completely shut down. Millions of jobs were lost. Demand for products and consumer behavior changed radically. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the fashion industry is in need of rebuilding. We have to determine what kind of industry we want to create and how we are going to protect workers in a new, more equitable model.

We’re grateful for your support as we rebuild together.

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