In keeping with true John Oliver style, this April 2015 episode of Last Week Tonight was well-researched, brilliantly-delivered and just the right amount of caustic.
It offers a succinct view of the fast fashion industry, efficiently contrasting both the front end – fancy clothes in fancy malls, peddled by fancy models – and the back end – severely overworked, underpaid mistreated employees in sweatshops.
It's a complicated topic to unpack and Oliver and his team of writers chose to anchor their story by going back in time... to the 90's, when a wave of consumer outrage was triggered after the revelation of shady manufacturing practices by big brands. But two decades later, what has happened to all that indignity, the eagerness to fight for labour rights in the developing world?
Over the course of 17 mins, this piece examines the predictable outcome of each fast fashion scandal – and there are many. Here's our rundown of the episode:
Low prices touted are almost always touted as a plus point of fast fashion, not the quality or unique design.
Hight-street brands have an alarmingly high turnover - in some locations, H&M stores are replenished daily; it can take just 3 weeks for designs to materialise into clothes on a rack.
In an interview, the CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson said, “If you go into an H&M store today and come back two days later, you will always find something new”.
The owners of many of these high-street fashion labels figure on 'world's richest lists', begging the question how do they turn such enormous profits? Answer – volume!
Using GAP as an example, Oliver illustrates the complicated maze of retailer-supplier-sub-contractor relations and how brands are able to systematically circumvent the system through various machinations.
After its first scandal in Bangladesh in the 90's, GAP promised stricter regulations but over the next two decades, investigations by the BBC revealed continued contravention of labour laws; their apparel were consequently produced in Cambodian and Indian sweatshops were children were employed.
Relentless sub-contracts are the prime culprit here, allowing brands to plead ignorance and absolve themselves of guilt; as Oliver said “deniability has been stitched into the supply chain”.
But at some point, “they lose the right to act surprised”. And by some point, we mean after the very first infraction.
The big question this episode raises - why did the 90's outrage over sweatshops flicker out? The large-scale concern and commitment to rectifying this abuse of power and people is never sustained in the face of new trends, new fashion lines, new models selling new clothes.
Social media is the missing link here. We live in an age where trends live and die on Instagram, where brands hire 'influencers' to pedal their brands and products. This adds an extra layer of aggressive advertising and insidious messaging that pushes consumers to feel that they need more to look good, feel good and be good.
Brands and advertisers need to start taking responsibility. But how? How do we keep them accountable? Keep following The Sweatshop Debate as we investigate brand obligation to their workers and their consumers.