On October 2nd, UCDSU held a €2 Pretty Little Thing sample sale. Backlash from students who were disappointed in the Union’s willingness to work with a company well known for its contribution to climate damage and labour abuses had been building from the event announcement. Students made their frustration known on the event’s Facebook page, even alleging that the SU deleted some of their negative comments (though now people suspect that Pretty Little Thing may have been responsible for the removal of comments).
Criticism of SU events is common, but it is much more rare to see that anger materialise into a physical protest at the event, like it did that Wednesday. It’s a testament to UCD Greens’ and Extinction Rebellions’ ability to mobilise together and jointly advocate for a mutual cause.
The event page said that the money raised would go to the mental health charity Young Minds (which seems to only operate in the UK), but SU members seemed to also be raising money for Enable Ireland and Rape Crisis Network Ireland at the event too.
Criticism of the event spread beyond UCD campus with Sustainable Fashion Dublin posting a response to the event on their Instagram. Founders Geraldine Carton and Taz Kelleher organise charity shop crawls and advocate sustainability with an infectious enthusiasm that has gained them over 18 thousand followers on Instagram. They shared UCD students’ frustration, “We think it’s really disappointing that a student union would be encouraging the mindless consumption of fast fashion in a place of education… Sure, the event is donating the entrance fee to charity, but this event is supporting an industry that cuts corners at every opportunity in order to facilitate cheap clothing.”
Shitty Little Thing
Pretty Little Thing is an online fashion retailer owned by Boohoo, along with Nasty Gal. They are fast-fashion producers that encourage a throw-away culture; clothes made as quickly and cheaply as possible, to be discarded after a week’s wear in favour of whatever is new in stock. Environmentally, the fashion industry’s energy usage surpasses that of the aviation industry and shipping industry combined.
In 2015, the University of Leicester and the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative released a report on Leicester’s textile sector, where Boohoo subcontracts factories. They found that the average wage earned by their textile workers was £3 an hour, estimating “that the defrauded weekly wage sum in East Midlands apparel manufacturing is around £1 million a week; resulting in an estimated £50 million a year lost in underpaid wages.” They found abusive and dangerous working environments, including Amazon’s favourite tactic of denying workers’ bathroom breaks. The report concluded that many of these factories exploit the vulnerabilities of their employees, that often include undocumented migrants and unskilled workers that are not aware that their rights should be protected under the Modern Slavery Act.
Most of this exploitation happens because companies like Boohoo don’t audit or regulate their subcontractor’s labour practices enough, or at all – the bottom line matters more than human rights. Boohoo has even admitted that they weren’t aware that some of their products were being manufactured in the UK. Boohoo received a score of 0 out of 100 for Traceability in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index 2019, which means that customers, and perhaps not even company members, know where their materials are sourced, who makes their clothes or how exactly they get to your doorstep.
I doubt the Union would say the event was unsuccessful. It was well attended, with some students reportedly waiting over two hours to get in. This was one of the moments, of which there have been many in the past few years, when the Union has been perceived as acting more like a private corporation than a democratically elected body.
There is a chance that a poor management structure is partially to blame for this oversight. The event was organised by the Entertainments Officer Tom Monaghan, while the Environmental Campaigns Coordinator Lisa Murnane technically works under the Campaigns & Engagement Officer Katie O’Dea. Last year, Monaghan and O’Dea’s roles were merged as one and perhaps the separation has led to a lack of moral continuity between campaigns and events.
The SU response to the protest has been to encourage frustrated students to submit a mandate to Student Council that would force the Union to campaign against fast fashion. This response is pretty ridiculous. Are students to be expected to mandate the Union not to do something? At the very least, not when the event conflicts with views that the SU claims to strongly espouse. This gets to the crux of the issue: the hypocrisy of holding a fast fashion event the week after the Union led UCD students in the Climate Strike March.
This is not a case of no-platforming. This is not an issue of appealing to both sides of a sensitive debate. The court has long since given its verdict on fast fashion: it’s abusive to our planet and its own labour force.
This is also not a manifestation of tiresome cancel culture. I still eat meat, I don’t own a Keep Cup and I care about ending the climate crisis; we cannot expect everything from everyone all the time, but we can expect more from our Union.
If the SU continues to sideline the issues that their campaign coordinators advocate, from the environment, if campaign issues are compartmentalised into one department rather maintained as a priority in the Union’s general interactions with students, they risk appearing to sideline these issues, from the environment to mental health, only give them the spotlight when it favours their business rather than their students.
Muireann O’Shea – Former Tribune Editor