Why you won’t see me queuing on the high street any time soon

Don’t get me wrong, I have missed losing an afternoon meandering through vintage clothes shops and sale rails, battling with elbows to find that perfect dress.

Now, however, the thought of venturing into the ‘New In’ section makes my stomach drop, as the move for shops to re-open today feels too soon, too scary, and surprisingly anxiety-inducing for many.

One thing I didn’t expect to come out of lockdown was a dramatic change in my relationship with retail and fashion. 

Before coronavirus confined us all to our homes, I would spend countless hours on Oxford Street browsing in shops. That was until I realised I had no money and shouldn’t be there at all. Despite that, it was fun. It was leisurely – and a distraction. 

Without the sequins and tulle clouding my vision over the last 12 weeks, however, I have been able to really see the fashion industry for what it is – flaws and all.

Whether it be a pay gap, or a lack of diversity in head offices, worker conditions or commitment to sustainability, it is obvious to me that big fashion brands have a long way to go before they take my money again. 

One report I came across revealed that Boohoo – one of the UK’s largest fast fashion retailers – was paying staff in Leicester between £3.50-£5 an hour, well below the UK minimum wage for over-25s of £8.21.

As a result, #BoycottBoohoo has been trending throughout the UK in the past two weeks, with many people examining the ways in which black and indigenous people are mistreated and exploited throughout the whole supply chain of companies.

Paying them a non-living wage around the world highlights how this problem disproportionately impacts black workers and people of colour within these systems. 

Boohoo aren’t alone though. Following the publication of a report in 2019 by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), there were five other retailers, including JD Sports and TK Maxx, that didn’t sign up to two target-driven reports.

The first being the ‘Action, Collaboration, Transformation’ labour agreement looking at ensuring the rights for workers is properly impacted by implementing a living wage. The second being the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), which sets targets for brands to reduce their carbon footprint, water usage and overall sustainability practices.

This breathing room that lockdown has given us, as well as scandals and boycotts of retail giants, has meant that social media has become a haven of independent business owners having a moment to shine. I know that I have learnt about so many small brands doing fashion responsibly, that I had never heard of before, including Lucy & Yak and independent designers such as Cat O’Brien and Rip It Up Vintage. 

Whether it be a queer-owned designer, or a brand focusing on discarded materials and upcycling, these past few months have shown us the possibilities of sustainable fashion. It’s lit a fire in me, and many other incredibly stylish and gorgeous human beings, to rediscover the talent and uniqueness that fashion can offer. 

I fear for my finances more than ever before so I’m not about to start throwing money about

And then there is the practical side of going back to the shops – even if there are meant to be measures for social distancing in place.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week stated in an interview that it’s time to get the economy up and running again, but this prioritisation of profit before people can only pose the question, do people even want to go shopping again? 

Social anxiety has taken hold of many of us during lockdown. I, for one, feel like I am moving down on the see-saw, plummeting into a stress that I didn’t see coming. 

Surprisingly, the idea of taking non-urgent trips to physical shops with other people is not a comforting thought right now. There is so much worry and stress that comes with reintroducing yourself to the world. 

How could being told to ‘Stay at home’ or ‘Stay Alert’ – whatever mantra you decide to inhale – not make you re-evaluate your life before this pandemic? 

Like many self-employed people, I fear for my finances more than ever before and I’m not about to start throwing money about either. 

I understand that some people may want to go back to wandering around John Lewis aimlessly, resulting in the purchase of a five in one colander, but I struggle to fathom how this is the top priority right now. 

Of course we need shops to open up again so we can purchase goods, workers can begin to go back to work, and businesses can begin to think of what they’re going to quickly throw on their Pride windows.

But we have to be more considerate of where we shop. Many people are currently in the midst of the hardest times of their lives, mentally, physically, and financially. Misconceptions surrounding independent shops include the idea that it’s more expensive – however, often shopping vintage and not opting for fast fashion is not as costly as we would think, with the quality also being much higher.

I for one won’t be going back to the high street having learnt about all the ways retail could be doing better for their customers, their workers and the environment. 

I just hope the big brands have used this period while their doors have been shut to reflect too. Perhaps they will all now have an ethical and socially sustainable model at their core. 

Perhaps not. 

If anything, coronavirus has enlightened many of us to the possibilities of – gasp – not shopping on the high street. 

We’ve coped with not flooding our wardrobes with new clothes for the past three months, and have been able to witness small businesses online find new footing in a world that favours the digital.

Remember those businesses when you’re in the six mile queue in Primark and realise how your continued patronage can stop them from being forgotten. 

Be sustainable, question things and be critical. Continue to ask yourself if you truly need to be joining the masses returning to the high street this week.

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