The dense forest of cotton mill chimneys and heavy clouds of soot loomed over Manchester, depriving the city of a single slither of sunlight or joy. Crowded inside the mills were men, women, and children as young as nine, working alongside heavy machinery for up to 13 hours each day. It was not just coal that powered the industrial revolution, there were also rivers of blood, sweat and tears squeezed from the mill workers to operate the machinery that made the mill owners immensely rich.
Centuries later in a brighter more humane postindustrial city that imports rather than exports good, most of the mills that still stand serve other businesses or have been converted into residences. But with the innovation of digital technology driving the silicon revolution, new ways of carrying out the same old exploitation and abuse of workers have emerged. Behind the glossy billboards and glamorous marketing, gross injustices are occurring under Manchester-based fast fashion brands.
Manchester-based fast-fashion brand, Boohoo, earned £1.47 billion in revenue during the first ten months of the covid-19 pandemic. Even during a global era of suffering, a business was able to continue operating warehouses crammed with staff. To quantify that absurd amount of money, just one billion pounds could build 16,600 new social homes or 50,000 shared ownership homes, a fraction of that would be able to eradicate Manchester’s homeless crisis. In the year up to 29 February 2021 Boohoo made a pre-tax profit of £92.2 million. Is that amount of profit justifiable when employees are overworked, underpaid, and in some countries, underage and still living below the poverty line? Unfortunately, it’s a business model that the city is all too familiar with.
Formerly known as Cottonopolis, Manchester was nicknamed the Northern powerhouse during the industrial revolution for its domination over the global cotton market trade. The steam-driven mill and spinner frame invention allowed mass production and trade of textiles, booming the city’s economy. But the sudden increase of the city’s capital and wealth depended on a system of human exploitation. The implementation of machines into textile production threatened job security. They could produce cotton at the same level of quality, but faster, forcing workers to compete with the machines. In The conditions of the working class in 1844, Friedrich Engels stated, “In truth, they were not human beings; they were merely toiling machines in the service of the few aristocrats who had guided history to that time.” In addition to steam and coal, the city’s greed fueled the industry.
Aja Barber is a sustainable fashion activist and writer from London. Through her work on social media and writing a book, she aims to educate society about the intersectional feminism and racist issues that underpin the damaging fast fashion industry.
In a masterclass with journalism and fashion students from Pearl Academy in India and Manchester Metropolitan University, Aja spoke to us about the dehumanising effects of overconsumption and overproduction. She said, “tying our value to productivity is something we need to unpick in our society” because like pieces of cotton, manufacturers viewed the workers as a commodity to be paid for based on productivity and demand, and the same lack of respect is happening in warehouses and factories today. Manchester fashion brands Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and MissGuided, use suppliers where factory labourers work against a vicious clock for poor pay, producing clothes that go out of trend nearly as quickly as they were produced.
Despite the number of Factory Acts implemented in the UK during the 19th-century, local brands continue to take advantage of the lack of regulation in overseas factories. Garment workers and children are just as exploited as they were three centuries ago, working up to 16 hours a day to keep up with the global north’s disposable lifestyle.
Speaking on ways fast fashion can become more sustainable, Barber continued, “brands need to radically transform the way they do business and rethink the colonialist system to which their business model still heavily depends.”
Manchester’s monopolisation of the cotton trade during the late 18th century was not solely down to the talent and revolutionary breakthroughs of James Watt and Richard Arkwright’s inventions. Britain gained power through violence, the colonisation of India being a prime example of that abuse of power, which allowed vast amounts of cotton to be fed to our new mechanical inventions. Britain also sourced cheap cotton on the back of slave labour in the southern states of America.
And whilst the bourgeoisie had few objections against dressing in clothing stitched by torture and cruelty, the oppressed mill workers of Manchester did. What they lacked in money, they made up for in empathy. Sacrificing what little food and economic security they had, in 1862, the workers supported Abraham Lincoln’s blockade of US export ships in a quest to win the civil war and abolish slavery. The statue of the American president Abraham Lincoln in a square named after him, is a reminder of the integrity and benevolence of Manchester’s working-class.
Struggling to compete with mass production, thousands of Indian cotton makers and designers were forced out of their earned place on the cotton trade market and stripped of their livelihoods at the hands of capitalists’ greed under colonialism. Yet to receive any form of reparation for colonialist abuses, the global south is still taken advantage of by fast fashion manufacturers.
“One byproduct of colonialism is that average citizens and consumers act like there’s no one that designs clothing in India,” Barber says, “so we go there, and we design our clothing!”
This self-righteous tenet that the countries we get our resources from are so impoverished that they need our help to develop, has existed for centuries to excuse exploitation.
Engels documented the bourgeoise’s justification of child labour and dangerous working conditions, “If we do not employ the children in the mills, they only remain in conditions unfavourable to their development.”
Whilst it’s clear that the mill workers then and the factory workers now are poor because we have a system that exploits the vulnerability of the poor working class. Our blind compliance as consumers continue to fuel the effects of colonialism, even after empires have fallen.
From its heyday as Cottonopolis, Manchester’s mass production has consistently impacted its environment. Residents of Ancoats created a document titled “Smoke Consuming at Ancoats Manchester 1820” detailing the damaging effects of the burning coal coming from the mills in an attempt to persuade mill owners to reduce coal consumption.
Engels noted that, “blood spitting, hard, noisy breathing, pains in chest, coughs, sleeplessness” were common side effects of this air pollution, but this did not slow down production.
Whilst cotton was not ethically sourced during the industrial revolution, it was one of the more biodegradable materials for clothing. But in 1941, another invention was developed, which further transformed the production of garments. Manchester’s Calico Printers Association introduced terylene, a chemically made poly fibre that is still commonly used today.
Applying the “beauty is pain” proverb is valid when enduring days of muscle pain after the gym, but it doesn’t excuse the harrowing level of harm overproduction of clothing has inflicted onto the planet. The state of air pollution has only worsened since the people of Ancoats raised their concerns, as polyester production releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton.
Mountains of landfill made up of 92 million tonnes of yesterday’s trends are suffocating the earth. If fast fashion doesn’t stop to allow our planet to breathe, the amount is expected to increase to 134 million tonnes a year, by 2030. Our oceans do not escape this pollution, they are poisoned with toxins dumped by textile manufacturers, and washing synthetic clothing produces 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres every year which end up in the worlds oceans.
It’s easy, for some, to take the moral high ground and blame countries in the global south who have few environmental laws for why the textiles industry produces 20% of global water pollution. But until a drastic reform of the fashion industry is implemented, companies such as Boohoo will continue to exploit the poor environmental and workers’ rights legislation present in global south countries.
The combination of polyester and cheap labour, lines the gaping pockets of the twenty global fashion retailers who account for 97% of economic profit from the worlds fashion trade. Conceptualising our clothes as literal waste that will outlive us by 200 years on this planet, may help us start to disassociate from this damaging consumer cycle. Aja Barber said:
“We are raised to think we are consumers from a young age. It is pushed upon you that buying things will make you feel better. People will like you if you have nicer clothes. It is pushed upon you that buying is a part of your identity.”
Striving to create a more ethical and sustainable city, Manchester Fashion Movement (MFM) emphasises the power of individual action, no matter how small. Whilst the blame lies with the large corporations whose overproduction directly impacts humans and the environment. Cofounder of MFM, Camilla Cheung, urges individuals to shop responsibly and consume less, saying:
“If we sit back and wait for the government to make these bigger changes that we need, we could be waiting forever.”
Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo profit off the cultural and peer pressure to wear the best trends by offering the working-class consumer the same affordable clothes that are seen on glorified influencers and bloggers. Fast fashion does offer inclusivity for consumers of lower-income brackets. However, the form of anti-classist activism that defends the increase of consumption by 60% in the last 15 years is counterproductive if we’re neglecting the rights of the oppressed workers less fortunate than the average consumer.
Camilla adds that “there’s a huge disconnect between what we wear and who made it.” Until the public opinion on fast fashion changes, these companies have no incentive to slow fashion down.
Whilst it’s disheartening to be burdened with the responsibility of liberating the oppressed workers of the fashion industry, history shows that regardless of minimum wage guidelines or legislation, employers will abuse every loophole to avoid ethical production. Engels wrote:
“…many employers disregard the law, shorten the meal times, work children longer than is permitted and risk prosecution, knowing that possible fines are trifling in comparison with the certain profits derivable from the offence.”
We can’t place our trust in government to solve these issues, their previous actions show they are comfortable with degrading workers’ rights here, and ignoring them abroad. Their only interest appears to be increasing GDP, no matter the cost.
Whilst the blame falls on the business that exploited workers in the cotton mills of the industrial revolution, and brands who continue to practise the same injustices in factories overseas today, individual action and education are essential. Manchester Fashion Movement seeks to break the elitist stigma of sustainability and educate children in schools of the fashion industry’s problems to eradicate its gross injustices. “Together, we need to take back individual control,” says Camilla. To reform the fashion industry, we need to change how we interact with an industry that feeds off our compliance as consumers, “otherwise, we’re just giving control back to the governments.”
Article amended 16 June 2021. The article was altered to clarify that the actual profit Boohoo made was less than the £1.47 billion in revenue stated. In the year up to 29 February 2021, Boohoo made a pre-tax profit of £92.9 million.
To learn more about Manchester Fashion Movement – click here.
Sign up to The Meteor mailing list – click here