The Ethics of Online Shopping
Amy Butterworth discusses the ethics of online retail during the current COVID-19 pandemic
With the world in crisis, it has exposed capitalism’s dark underbelly, and how it manifests in horrifying ways. At these unprecedented times, consumers have witnessed how companies, especially fashion retailers, have responded to the coronavirus pandemic and can use it as a litmus test, to decide who to support after the pandemic, and who to boycott indefinitely.
The economic impact of the virus cannot be understated; we are experiencing the biggest fall in the global stock market since the 2008 financial crisis due to the virus’s impact on employment, but despite the UK government’s Job Retention Scheme meaning that employers can claim 80 percent of the normal pay of furloughed employees, there has still been reports of major worker injustice in the UK.
Spreadsheets sharing how UK companies have reacted to the virus, and the treatment of their employees, are being shared en masse. Companies such as Wetherspoons (who stayed open for until legally required to close and told workers they would not be paid until the 80 percent scheme came in) and Virgin Atlantic (who similarly forced employees to take unpaid leave, as founder and billionaire Richard Branson has the gall to ask for a bailout) are emblazoned in red. It signals to readers of the spreadsheet: “danger” and also, “I refuse to pay my employees”. Similarly, H&M and Zara have been adorned in red due to staying open for the majority of March.
It is clear which companies care about the livelihoods of their staff, and those who treat their employees as cannon fodder
In the fashion industry, online retailing perseveres. However, it is clear which companies care about the livelihoods of their staff, and those who treat their employees as cannon fodder in order to keep sales maintained. Retailers such as Next, Moss Bros and Net a Porter have closed their UK online warehouses. Net a Porter did so after the GMB (a trade union that represents workers and strive for fair pay and conditions) called out the luxury retailer for “putting fashion before people’s lives”.
Other online retailers have not done the same to prioritise the health of its employees. Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB describes Asos’s still-open warehouse as a “cradle of disease”, as 98 percent of 460 surveyed deem the safety measures in the warehouse in Barnsley insufficient and thus unsafe. They are not able to maintain the two-metre social distancing government advice, a lack of protective gear such as gloves and hand sanitiser, a worker spoke to the Guardian and had been told to “bring your own” protective gear if they don’t feel safe.
Vogue Business have also reported on how the fashion industry is expected to be affected by the global pandemic. They state that “department store retailers are the first to fall”, as we have seen in the UK as Debenhams goes into administration again, and small design houses are next. They also report on the impact this has on garment manufacturing and exports from Asia due to the lack of demand. 40 million garment workers’ livelihoods are being put at risk (more so than ever), as campaigners demand that their wages be protected. And we can’t help but be reminded that fast-fashion was already in discussion before a global crisis, as we boycott certain retailers who compromise on safe working conditions and fair pay – what is happening to the workers now?
As the world pauses, perhaps this is no better time to introduce slow fashion into the mainstream. The virus has truly made us realise the value of each worker at every step of the fashion supply chain. Thus, we must work to support companies that promote fair and safe working conditions, in and out of a global pandemic.
Cover Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash