What does the fall of the high street mean for sustainable fashion?

By Aoife McDowell / February 10, 2021
fall of the high street mean for sustainable fashion

On Monday, it was announced that the online fashion giant, Boohoo, would be buying over Dorothy Perkins. Since the beginning of the year, a large portion of shops under the Arcadia group have been bought by different online fashion brands, leading to a large decrease in high street shops. These online fast fashion brands have faced widespread criticism over their lack of ethical and sustainable fashion choices. As high street shops are usually more accountable for their environmental and ethical choices, what does the fall of the high street mean for sustainable fashion?

Decline of the high street 

Before the pandemic, the high street was already showing worrying signs of decline, but coronavirus seems to have put the final nail in the coffin, with many shoppers now choosing online shopping. A recent study found that consumers in Ireland have shown a rapidly increasing preference to shop from home using digital channels, with 90% saying they spent money online over the past month. In addition to this, 4 in 10 people (37%) said they began shopping online for the first time as a result of the pandemic.

Philip Green, owner of the Arcadia group, which was in charge of massive high street stores such as Topshop, Debenhams, and Dorothy Perkins, announced in December 2020 that Arcadia had gone into administration. The retail giant took a huge economic hit as high street shopping has been impossible for most of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dorothy Perkins

Since the start of the year, the online fashion giant, Boohoo, has bought a massive portion of Arcadia shops, such as Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Burton, and Debenhams, promising to take them all online. ASOS has also brought a large portion of  retail under the Arcadia umbrella, announcing last week that it would be taking over Topshop, Topman, and Miss Selfridge. 

The problem with this is these online sites are more “fast fashion” than high street brands and seem to view themselves as less accountable for ethically sourcing the clothing they produce. So, what are some of the problems these brands have faced?

Environmental and sustainable issues

Boohoo has frequently been voted as one of the least sustainable fashion brands by environmental research groups. In 2019, the Environmental audit committee, which was conducting a study for the government into “fast fashion” named Boohoo as one of the least environmentally friendly retail brands in Britain. The same study found that high street retailers under the Arcadia group were far more environmentally friendly and committed to reducing their carbon footprint.

In another damning report, good on you found Boohoo does not use eco-friendly materials and there is no evidence it has taken meaningful action to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals. They also note that the “brand does measure and report on greenhouse gas emissions from its direct operation but not from its supply chain and there is also no evidence it implements water reduction initiatives”.

In 2020, The  Fashion Transparency Index, which reviews and ranks 250 of the largest brands according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices, and impacts, gave Boohoo an overall score of 9%. The  average is only 23%, as most large brands aren’t transparent, but Boohoo is still distinctly lower than this number.

Labour conditions

Another massive problem with “fast fashion” online brands is that they often fail to meet standard working conditions for the employees that make their clothes. Boohoo also has one of the worst records for workers rights in retail. 

The retail giant came under fire last year after it was discovered workers in their garment factories were working illegally throughout the pandemic. Workers in the company’s Leicester factories were made to work in non-socially distanced areas at the height of the pandemic and told to come into work even when they were sick with Covid-19. It was also found that those isolating due to coronavirus were not given sick pay.

Even before this a number of investigations had found that UK garment factories that supply Boohoo were regularly paid less than half of minimum wage, while research from the Ethical Trading Initiative and the University of Leicester in 2015 found that it’s very common for garment workers in Leicester to be paid illegally low wages. 

ASOS, which recently took over Topshop, Topman, and Miss Selfridge, has also faced similar allegations. During the first lockdown ASOS warehouses were labelled “a cradle of disease” by the GMB union. More than 98% of more than 460 workers who took part in a survey carried out by the GMB union said they felt unsafe at the ASOS warehouse. Workers described crowded conditions with no attempt at social distancing, putting them at high risk of contracting the virus.

Similar online retailers, such as SHEIN, Missguided, and Pretty Little Thing, have all come under fire for the same problems with poor working conditions for staff. Online fast fashion brands have been consistently worse at providing appropriate working conditions for staff than their high street counterparts.

What does the fall of the high street mean for sustainable fashion?

Throughout the last number of years, there has been a real push towards sustainable and ethically sourced fashion. Most people have become more aware and conscious about the fashion they choose. However, the unforeseen effects of the coronavirus appear to have had a push back effect against the trend.  Online fast fashion brands are now eclipsing retail and show no real signs of trying to become more ethical, even in the face of scandal. 

Although the fall of the high street may be a disaster for the sustainable fashion movement right now, the movement shows no sign of slowing and activists are still pushing for more ethical fashion choices. Perhaps now that online fashion brands have taken centre stage in the retail industry they will be forced to review their current policies and take more accountability for the clothing they produce.

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Aoife McDowell

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Geraldine Fay
Geraldine Fay
21 days ago

A very informative article. I think it is very sad that high street shops are disappearing as I personally prefer seeing clothes before buying. Now, after reading this article I feel even more sad as I never really considered the effect on ethical and sustainable fashion. I believe the rise in online shopping is largely due to restrictions because of the pandemic and I hope that we can all return to a normality where it is safe to go back on the high street soon.

Anne Drain
Anne Drain
20 days ago

Very interesting and informative article.I was not aware of the very poor records of the fashion brands mentioned and I will certainly be avoiding these in the future.


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