Here's a question: Want to help a family in Bangladesh whose livelihood has been affected by COVID-19 and get some new clothes at 50% off? There are probably two main responses: "Well, durrr" and "What's the catch?"
I’ll get to the third response – "No thanks, I’ve got more than enough clothes" – later.
The catch is that you can’t choose the clothes, only specify gender, size, "style age" (dress sense rather than birth certificate) and colour palette. Lost Stock sells "surprise" packages of garments direct from factories whose products would have been sold on the high street but had their orders cancelled without payment during COVID-19. The contents of each package would have retailed at £70 RRP but will set you back just £35, and the money supports a garment worker for a week. So far, over 100,000 of us have bought one of these mystery boxes in a bid to embrace ethical fashion post-pandemic.
The initiative came about during lockdown in May, when fashion-tech entrepreneur Cally Russell saw the news that fashion retailers had cancelled $2 billion worth of orders from suppliers, leaving mountains of unsold clothing and no wages for garment workers. Harrowingly, one factory manager in Bangladesh was quoted as saying: "If coronavirus doesn’t kill my workers then starvation will." As the founder of personal shopping app Mallzee (tagline: "Tinder for Fashion"), Cally had the contacts and customer base to try and mitigate the impending crisis.
Mallzee partnered with the SAJIDA Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation in Bangladesh, as well as Royal Mail to put the plan into action. The original target was to sell 50,000 of the boxes by the end of 2020, a figure they surpassed in a month. Lost Stock won’t say which brands the clothes were destined for but it's been well documented that Arcadia (which owns Topshop), Primark, Asda, Peacocks and Urban Outfitters have swerved their obligations to suppliers. Other brands like H&M agreed to pay up after pressure over the initial cancellations.
Lost Stock draws attention to two issues inherent in fast fashion: the exploitation of garment workers overseas and environmental harm, including waste sent to landfill. The fact that $2 billion worth of clothing can be lost without anybody missing it perfectly illustrates how wasteful the industry has become.
I asked Cally if the crisis has made him see the fashion industry differently or if Mallzee will change as a consequence. "No," he replied, "we’ve never said we want to name and shame people, we just want to help those workers." He’s polite and easy to chat to but refuses to throw any individual retailers under the bus. "Nobody saw this pandemic coming, that shops would have to close for months. None of these retailers wanted to cancel their orders." He continued: "Mallzee brings retailers together on one searchable platform, where search terms become insight data for retailers, who then order more efficiently, resulting in less overstock therefore less waste."
The fact that $2 billion worth of clothing can be lost without anybody missing it perfectly illustrates how wasteful the industry has become.
Cally’s positivity and can-do attitude can’t remedy what this crisis has thrown into sharp relief. During the good times, clothing retailers profit from low-paid suppliers in far-off countries yet when things go wrong, they turn their backs on them.
Sophie Slater, cofounder of Birdsong (tagline: "Original wardrobe staples that are ethical, sustainable and made by talented women paid a fair wage"), told me: "Anything that keeps stock out of landfill and supports garment workers is a brilliant idea." However, she added: "What we mustn't forget in supporting this scheme is that garment workers will continue to need support, and will unfortunately continue to be exploited by larger brands if they're not supported to organise and earn a living wage."
Other sustainability commentators like Alex Thomas of @wildly_conscious suggested that by sending people random clothes, the likelihood is that they will end up in landfill or chucked in a charity bin anyway. "Like all clothing, you must take responsibility for it, have a plan for if you don’t like it – give to friends, upcycle or resell, don’t just put in a charity bin, putting the onus on somebody else to deal with." She added that if neither you nor your friends wants an item, you could upcycle it into "something useful: cleaning cloths, cushion covers, a bag. See it as a piece of material and look at sewing blogs for inspiration."
To test Alex's theory, I ordered a box from Lost Stock myself. Not keen on surprises, I tried to taste-proof my order by opting for dark tops in the "plain" rather than "patterned" option, crossing my fingers for all black.
I waited eight weeks for my package to arrive. Cally said that people were excited about the "gift they’d bought for their future self" although I normally only buy from Monki and Arket if I use the high street, so I decided to reserve judgement. Fashion blogger Madiha Hussain (@madihablobbb) was more optimistic, saying: "It’s a great way to help out garment workers in Bangladesh who are struggling financially in a way that’s engaging for consumers. The mystery/surprise element of the box is fun!"
Madiha agreed that Lost Stock is exposing rather than excusing the industry’s lack of ethics. "Instagram has fuelled fast fashion’s culture of people constantly wearing and posting new outfits, but recent events have made people more conscious of where their clothes are coming from," she said, adding that she’s been focusing on buying staple pieces to mix and match rather than statement items. She was confident that she’d be able to style up her Lost Stock items, rather than getting rid.
In my pack were a very flimsy black camisole, a pale blue top in picnic-table stripes and an olive green '90s-style slip dress. The two tops are not really my style but the dress is the sort of thing I’d wear on holiday (though equally I could live without it). Garment labels have been replaced with Lost Stock ones, which has enraged activists who argue that this lets brands off the hook (and although several bloggers have found Matalan tags, Lost Stock has bought from 23 different brands including hundreds of product lines). Speaking of bloggers, many responses on Twitter were negative, regarding quality, wrong colour, size etc. Instagram proved more forgiving, although I noticed that everyone posting had at least one of the same items as me, which made me question the point of the style options. I wasn’t surprised by the low quality of the items (the picnic top had the nicest fabric) but I might query an RRP of £70.
I’m planning to re-gift both my tops to friends and keep the dress. Despite not being thrilled with my items, I’m loath to criticise the initiative. Lost Stock has taken meaningful action in a truly dire situation and the scheme continues to expand to other countries and now includes a childrenswear option. They’re not making money out of the project either, with margins covering logistics like returns. The real problem is the wasteful, exploitative system behind our penchant for cheap clothing.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the crisis: we can stop buying from retailers which don’t pay their workers fairly, choose secondhand, or shop at brands with a better rating on Good On You – a useful place to begin your sustainable fashion journey. If you’re moved by the plight of garment workers but don’t want a Lost Stock package you could still make a donation to the SAJIDA Foundation, the Clean Clothes Campaign or the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. These organisations and others have made the point that charities for garment workers shouldn’t be necessary – fair pay and conditions are.
Sign Traidcraft's petition to demand UK fashion retailers honour their contracts with suppliers and commit to paying garment workers a fair wage here.