The Power Of #PayUp

In March, after apparel brands and retailers canceled clothing orders worth $40 billion, the #PayUp movement has helped stop the biggest heist in fashion’s history. And it’s just getting started.

Text Size

On the afternoon of March 25, 2020, the 2,000 garment workers at Denim Expert Ltd. in Dhaka, Bangladesh turned off their sewing machines and collected their possessions. A nervous ripple flowed down the sewing lines. Some people were crying. A few young women, dressed in flowing saris, gathered together for a few selfies hoping that the brands they sew clothes for would see these pictures, see their faces, and save their lives.

 

With the U.S. coronavirus case count still under 3,000 and Bangladesh’s at a mere 39, Denim Expert owner Mostafiz Uddin and the country’s four million garment workers had little idea that they were headed into a months-long war against powerful Western clothing brands—or that a global movement of consumers and labor activists would fight alongside them.

 

There were to be more tears, and fears of everything from hunger to debt collectors—the least of which was coronavirus. But for now, all that could be done was for everyone to go home.

One week earlier, with cases climbing in America and the world bracing for the coronavirus pandemic, Uddin, a 42-year old first-generation factory owner with boundless energy had arrived at Denim Expert Ltd. in the ancient port city of Chattogram. He had spent more than a decade building one of the world’s most sustainable and ethical manufacturing facilities, hiring transgender workers and people with disabilities, and pushing to create a more ethical and inclusive apparel industry. He opened his inbox to a wave of emails that dashed those dreams.

 

Denim Expert Ltd. makes jeans for well-known clothing retailers and brands, including rapper Sean Combs’ Sean Jean line and Jones New York, which is owned by the sourcing conglomerate Li & Fung/Global Brands Group; as well as Burton Menswear and Dorothy Perkins, owned by Arcadia Group, the same conglomerate that owns Topshop; and Peacocks, a U.K. fast fashion line owned by British billionaire Philip Day.

 

Executives from these brands had written to say that with their stores shuttered and cash flow dried up due to coronavirus, they would not be taking the clothing they had ordered months back, nor would they be paying Uddin for any of the clothing that his garment workers had spent hundreds of hours over the last few months diligently cutting, sewing, and finishing.

 

“You will note that we are able to cancel any order at any stage,” one message from Arcadia Group’s CEO Ian Grabiner bluntly read, referring to a line in an agreed-upon contract. In the minds of the brands, the decision was not up for discussion or negotiation; it was delivered down by decree. Uddin’s factory was stuck with hundreds of thousands of pairs of skinny jeans and shorts, some of it stacked ceiling high in cardboard boxes. The brands altogether owed him over $10 million for fabric and finished and partially finished clothing.

Take a tour of Bangladesh’s fastest growing garment manufacturer Denim Expert Ltd.

“This will be worse than Rana Plaza,” Uddin told me over the phone two days after first closing his factory, his voice trembling. He was referring to the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that had injured and killed thousands of garment workers’ seven years earlier. We were talking at 3 a.m. his time—he’d stopped sleeping due to the anxiety over the thought of losing his “dream” of a factory and putting his workers out on the street. I paused for a moment and let what he was telling me sink in.

 

Because garment factories operate on razor-thin margins and use the money from orders to pay workers and keep the lights on, the emails were essentially dooming Uddin’s factory to closing, and his staff to destitution. And since garment workers are mostly young women who live paycheck to paycheck with no savings and who directly support children and a spouse as well as their extended family, in Uddin’s case, some 10,000 people were at risk of losing their livelihoods.

 

And it wasn’t just a few companies that canceled orders when the pandemic hit—and it wasn’t just Uddin’s or Bangladesh’s workers’ lives on the line. Almost all mass-market brands and retailers canceled orders and in almost all supplier countries, from Cambodia, Pakistan, and Vietnam to Myanmar and Ethiopia, and beyond. It was everyone: Zara, H&M, C&A, Next, Bestseller, and Primark; mall brands like Gap; price-conscious department stores like Kohl’s, Ross, and JCPenney; big box retailers like Walmart—and countless other sourcing companies and middlemen whose names we don’t have and may never know.

 

In Bangladesh, where garments make up most export earnings, orders canceled totaled well over $3 billion. As the Southeast Asian nation represents about 8% of total apparel exports globally, rough estimates by Mark Anner at the Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights revealed that almost $40 billion worth of apparel was canceled around the world, the equivalent of the salaries of Bangladesh’s four million garment workers for the next eight years—and the salaries and benefits of most of the world’s 50 million garment workers for the rest of 2020.

 

If this was worse than Rana Plaza, then the cancelation crisis would be the most catastrophic event in the history of the modern apparel industry.

Elizabeth L. Cline

In the middle of March, well-off citizens of Europe, China, and parts of the U.S. were in lockdown and our outfit-of-the-day culture came to a grinding halt. There was no need for Easter dresses, spring break shopping splurges, or summer wardrobe overhauls.

 

Attending to our own unfolding anxiety about the pandemic, consumers had little idea how our sudden lifestyle shifts were impacting vulnerable people half a world away. Our Instagram posts turned towards bread-baking and homemaking and away from competitive consumption. U.S. apparel consumption dropped 89% in one month.

 

The clothing industry relies on a vast and opaque global supply chain. Each season, a perfectly coordinated web of tens of thousands of factories and millions of garment workers come together to produce gobs of fresh product under impossible deadlines and for obscenely low prices and wages.

 

Brands, those masters of PR and whose only real product is marketing, rely on this vast network of factories to make the cheap clothes we enjoy. And over time, they’ve rearranged the contracts and purchase order terms imposed during manufacturing to push all of the debt and the risk onto their suppliers—and to push all of the profits towards brands.

 

“It is just a system for making suppliers subsidize the cash flow of brands and retailers,” says Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “It’s indefensible, morally and economically.”

 

Since March, apparel companies have used the phrase “canceled orders” to gaslight the public about how they operate. Here is what is really going on: Brands place huge orders with factories a season or more in advance. The factories front the massive costs for fabric, trim and payroll, and the brands pay the factory back months after the goods are shipped out.

To cancel orders is not to wipe the slate clean or nullify a transaction—it means to refuse payment for work done. And because the clothing industry is so colossally wasteful and makes so much stuff each season, canceling orders is not like walking out of a restaurant without paying the bill. There’s a staggering amount of money at stake. Uddin, for example, is owed millions just for fabric that he ordered to make jeans and jean jackets for a single season.

 

Is canceling orders legal? Some contracts, as is the case with Arcadia Group, protect the brands’ right to cancel for any reasons. This is an abuse of power that only makes sense by the perverse logic of the fast fashion system. It’s a contract that says: We can steal from you at any time.

 

Other apparel companies used (and misused) a force majeure argument, claiming the pandemic was an act of God that made it impossible for them to take the goods. It might have been physically impossible to sell the product, since stores were closed, but it wasn’t financially impossible to pay for the orders. As we later learned, many brands were in fact sitting on millions or billions in cash (see: Kohl’s), and have a plethora of financial tools at their disposal to pay their creditors.

 

But whether or not what the brands did was legal is a moot point (and it’s not clear that it is). It ultimately served to highlight the power imbalance and exploitation at the heart of the industry.

 

Estimated at $40 billion, the apparel’s industry’s unilateral decision to cancel orders represents the single largest act of theft in the modern apparel industry. It is potentially one of the largest single transfers of wealth out of apparel producing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam and into rich countries in modern times. At the very least, it is one of the most far-reaching acts of corporate disregard for human rights in the apparel industry in living memory.

 

“The brands banked on being able to do this and getting away with it,” says Mark Anner, the head of the Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights about how cancelations have impacted garment workers globally. “They thought the buyers wouldn’t speak up.”

In March, Mark Anner, one of the world’s top experts on sweatshops and labor rights abuses, was working from home in central Pennsylvania after his campus went into lockdown. Each morning, he checked the apparel trade publications and watched with growing anxiety as the crisis unfolded in Bangladesh, some 8,000 miles away. “You’re talking about people’s livelihoods. Their ability to put food on the table,” says Anner.

 

On March 18, the day after Uddin got the emails, Anner got a call from Scott Nova, long-time head of labor rights non-profit the Worker Rights Consortium. Nova, who was riding out the lockdown at home in Washington, D.C., asked if Anner could put together a survey to gather data about how the cancelations were impacting Bangladeshi factories. Although the country represents just a portion of the world’s total apparel production, Bangladesh has a tight-knit and vocal community of suppliers, and the survey would serve as a viable case study of what was happening everywhere.

 

Anner agreed and worked frantically alongside Nova to put together a research project in a couple of days, one that would normally take weeks or even months of preparation. “We knew if we didn’t move quickly and effectively, we’d lose the opportunity to limit the damage,” recalls Nova.

 

Before all hell broke loose, the WRC focused on about a dozen factory-level cases of abuse in the apparel supply chain at a time. Through meticulous documentation and back and forth negotiations with unions, brands, and workers, the organization works to reach a resolution for garment workers often using what Nova calls “brand leverage,” meaning pressuring individual companies to gain justice for their workers. The resolution often means getting workers paid back large sums of money, as was the case last year when the group wrested back $4.5 million for workers at one of Nike’s supplier factories in Indonesia.

 

But when the cancelation crisis hit, the work of the WRC, a bootstrapped organization of less than two-dozen people, pivoted to take on an almost full-time investigation into dozens of brands in defense of millions of garment workers around the world. Anner would be drawn into the work on an almost around-the-clock basis, as well. And the road-tested WRC techniques of meticulous data-gathering paired with brand leverage would become the foundation of the campaign to get factories paid back.

At the same time, Ayesha Barenblat, a Pakistani immigrant with two decades of experience in garment worker advocacy, was home in San Francisco, reconsidering the plans she had for Remake, her social-media-savvy consumer activist group. “The industry was in a free-fall, and the first people who were going to be at risk were workers, so for us it was clear we had to scrap everything,” recalls Barenblat.

 

On March 24, a Tuesday, Barenblat woke up to a video of the head of Bangladesh’s apparel exporters’ association, Rubana Huq, pleading almost to the point of tears with brands to pay for their orders. Suppliers, normally quiet and never critical of brands, were going public with what was happening. The cancelations were on the verge of causing a humanitarian disaster in Bangladesh. Brands had to pay, Huq said, “Otherwise, we will have 4.1 million workers literally out on the streets.” In a country lacking unemployment insurance or a safety net for its workers, factories not being able to pay workers would mean total societal breakdown.

 

That day, Barenblat made the decision to recenter Remake around a singular goal: to get the factories and the workers their money and to use the #PayUp hashtag on social media to do it. Although the hashtag had been used before by labor groups, after Rana Plaza and other labor rights violations in the apparel industry, #PayUp was newly relevant. The hashtag said it all. “[The hashtag] made it very clear to the press and consumers that we were not asking for charity but simply good business,” says Barenblat.

View this post on Instagram

It’s time for fashion brands to #PayUp‼️ Unless Zara, Primark, GAP, Walmart and others #PayUp - millions of garment makers will go hungry and not survive. Many have already been sent home with no severance, savings or access to healthcare. We’re asking companies to #PayUp for previously placed orders and materials, rather than just abandoning their garment workers and supply chain partners-people who have zero safety net. Bangladesh’s garment industry accounts for 80% of the country’s exports, making its economy and the livelihood of its population reliant on apparel orders from the United States and Europe. Since the arrival of Covid-19, over $3 billion worth of orders has been cancelled or paused. This issue is global, with garment factories facing similar fates all around the world 🌎 With no source of income, millions of garment workers who bring our fashion to life will end up starving and on the streets within weeks. Help save the lives of millions. Demand brands #PayUp. Brands must pay for in-production and cancelled orders, rather than abandon their supply chain partners and the people who have kept their businesses profitable for decades. Sign the @changedotorg petition to join me and @remakeourworld in using your voice to help save the lives of millions of humans who make our clothes ✍️ (🔗 in bio)⁣ . @zara, @primark, @pvh, @target, @marksandspencer, @ca, @mothercareuk, @bestseller.com, @kohls, @walmart, @jcpenny, @gap, @americaneagle With every new signature, an email is sent to the CEO’s of the companies that we are demanding to take action ✊ Caption Credit: @remakeourworld

A post shared by Arizona Muse (@arizona_muse) on

That Friday, as March drew to a close, the results of the Penn State and WRC survey went live, confirming the devastation that brand cancellations had on garment workers: Canceled orders directly led to garment workers losing their jobs without pay or severance. A million workers had already lost their jobs directly because of the cancellations. Garment workers were going to go hungry and be on out the streets, as Huq warned, if companies weren’t forced to change their decision and #PayUp.

 

But the campaign still needed a confirmed list of guilty brands to work with, and that was a harder ask. Factories are terrified of criticizing their clients for fear of retribution. Uddin is a lone exception. Most worry that they could lose all future orders if they name names.

 

But Anner figured out a work-around. He went back through the survey data, compiling a single list of how much each brand had cancelled in total across Bangladesh, leaving no finger pointed at an individual supplier. On March 29, a Sunday, the WRC/Penn State report was updated with a roster of companies who’d canceled orders.

 

With the list of major companies public and the amount of money owed by each brand out in the open, a Herculean, globe-spanning effort to get brands to #PayUp (and workers paid back) began in earnest.

In March, I was home in Brooklyn, with all of my lectures and most of my writing contracts canceled (I was effectively unemployed). Just a few weeks earlier, I’d been planning to join a press junket in Bangladesh to document the country’s transformation into a hub of sustainable and ethical manufacturing. I was to meet Uddin, who’s helped lead this transformation, in person for the first time.

 

But the story I was chasing was, in all honesty, different than the one Uddin wanted me to write. Despite huge investments into safety and sustainability, prices paid to garment factories have only gone down since Rana Plaza; wages have barely budged. This was the story I wanted to tell: Why was the so-called sustainable fashion revolution happening in the U.S. and Europe not having any impact on garment workers’ lives?

 

As my first piece for Atmos hinted, I knew that the consumer movement in the States, the one that I was actively feeding with my cheery consumer guide, The Conscious Closet, was on the wrong track. It was too cozy with the companies that it exists to hold to task. In fact, brands are funding a Sustainable Fashion Industrial Complex, a network of conferences and panels, content, NGOs, advertising, and influencers created to do its bidding—and to tell the lie that things are changing—and I had been sucked into somewhere along the way.

 

Then the pandemic told the real story. It forced a reckoning in the ethical and sustainable fashion space. An investigation in The Nation in April found that factory audits haven’t led to any serious improvements for garment workers in a quarter century. A Vogue Business exposé found that multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Ethical Trading Initiative are equally ineffective. The news broke that popular “sustainable” fashion startups Reformation and Everlane are systemically racist, not to mention busting unions in the case of Everlane. And when Fashion Revolution Week came around, on the anniversary of Rana Plaza, articles and social media posts said aloud what we all already know: Transparency is not a road to reform for fashion. It’s a way for brands to self-report on their good behavior.

 

The cancelation crisis was proof that large brands will always protect their profits and shareholders above everything else, over human lives. If we wait around for huge fashion brands to gain a conscience, we’ll wait forever, and that is what their corporate social responsibility directors are hoping we will do. When times are good, big businesses give money to the right causes or invest a bit here and there into sustainability. But, mostly, corporate social responsibility exists to stave off accountability and real reform.

Scott Nova

With that made clear and with Mostafiz’s words ringing in my ears, on March 27, I turned to social media and started sharing everything I was hearing from suppliers in Bangladesh and working to do my small part to call out the companies who need to #PayUp, including launching a website with a few ethical fashion colleagues called PayUpFashion.org.

 

In those very early days, I joined just a handful of activists from Remake, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, Extinction Rebellion, and The New Fashion Fashion Initiative, in addition to a few other solo actors like myself. Behind the scenes, without giving away too much about the inner workings of the group, we built a historic coalition of suppliers, garment workers, labor and human rights activists, journalists, and influencers that worked to get the campaign off the ground.

 

The #PayUp concept is simple: We demand that brands pay in full and on time for all orders placed before the coronavirus pandemic and according to their original payment terms. And we call out non-paying brands on social media and in the press. We follow the research of the WRC, who posts a Brand Tracker, a list of brands who have and have not committed to pay, and which the organization verifies by talking to workers and union groups and brands themselves.

 

By April 1, days after launching, the campaign had its first five corporations committing to #PayUp: H&M, Zara/Inditex, Target (USA), PVH Corporation (owners of Calvin Klein, Izod, and Tommy Hilfiger), and French brand Kiabi.

 

By June, the campaign was going viral after it was revealed that one of the conglomerates who’ve canceled orders, Global Brands Group, was linked to Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s clothing brand ( representatives for the brand have denied that Global Brands Group manufactures the sisters’ line). To date, almost 241,000 people have signed Remake’s #PayUp petition and 46,000 people per day view the group’s Instagram stories about #PayUp. Social media activists around the world have posted about the campaign or even created their own #PayUp accounts (@whomade.yourclothes built up over 19,000 followers in a few weeks in support of the campaign and Bangladeshi-American YouTube star Nabela Noor has taken to posting about it, as well).

 

“It’s been such a powerful combination of factors,” says Anner. “The #PayUp campaign has been crucial because it’s been the most explicit, the most relentless, and the most clear. The name of the campaign says it all.”

 

To date, Anner and the WRC estimates that well over $1 billion has been promised back to suppliers in Bangladesh and well over $22 billion globally, meaning that more than half of the original sum of stolen money has been promised back. Nineteen huge apparel corporations, including Levi’s, Gap Inc., Nike, Adidas, and The North Face, have agreed to #PayUp, while many others have agreed to pay a substantial part of what they originally owed.

 

“There’s no question that the campaign has, at least for now, averted millions of lost jobs in the industry and hundreds of millions of dollars in wages for workers,” says Nova. “And in terms of its direct financial impact on workers, it’s probably the most successful campaign on worker rights in the apparel supply chain ever.”

Over the past four months, as the #PayUp movement has spread like wildfire and more brands move to the right side of history, Mostafiz Uddin has shared his story on LinkedIn, Instagram, and in news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and beyond, putting a face to the cancelation crisis and risking everything by calling out the companies that owe him money. To date, he’s gotten a significant sum back, which has helped him to pay his workers for the last four months, even while his factory remained partially shuttered.

 

“If there was no #PayUp campaign and the journalists stopped writing about this, they would have never paid,” says Uddin.

 

But as I write this, Denim Expert Ltd. is potentially days away from going out of business, crushing Uddin’s dream of an ethical and sustainable industry in Bangladesh. He says he is still owed millions from Peacocks and Arcadia Group, the company that owns Topshop, as well as from Global Brands Group, the company that owns Sean Jean and Jones New York. Some of these companies say they’ll pay months from now, but, by then, Uddin’s factory will be shuttered.

 

Uddin’s story is a reminder that the hard work of reforming the apparel industry lies ahead. Stopping theft is no stand-in for long-term change. The cancelation crisis has made it clear that the apparel industry can no longer be built around voluntary labor and environmental standards by brands. New purchase orders that favor suppliers, establish higher prices for factories, higher prices for consumers, and living wages for workers are all absolute musts. Putting supplier and worker voices in the center of all decision-making is an absolute must. True brand accountability and true protections for workers and factories are the only way forward.

 

The #PayUp campaign has shown me what consumer power, citizen action and coalition-building can look like, but more importantly what it can achieve. For individuals, it’s not enough to criticize fast fashion, or to retreat into a perfectly curated world of sustainable outfits. We owe it to the millions of people who make our clothes to reform fast fashion, to overhaul it, and to speak truth to power. Until we gain much-needed legal reforms, one of the main tools we have at our disposal as citizens is holding individual companies accountable for their behavior.

 

These demands for justice would have sounded impossible a few months ago, but #PayUp has built a coalition that has made me believe, for the first time in a long time, that real change is possible.

Africa,Asia,BiodiversityChampions,Cascade,Circularity,Cities,ClimateArt,ClimatePolitics,ClimateResiliency,Conversations,Culture,DeadWhiteMansClothes,EcoInnovation,Ecosystems,EthicalFashion,Europe,FlourishCollapse,FutureOfFood,GlobalFashion,HumanBody,IndigenousStories,Latitude,Neo-Natural,NewBiology,NorthAmerica,Oceania,Oceans,Perspectives,ResourceExtraction,SouthAmerica,SupplyChains,TheOverview,Travel,Watch,