Fast Forward: towards an ethical UK supply base

Fast Forward is a labour standards improvements programme operating in the UK. A representative from the organisation tells us more about the programme.

At Fast Forward, our vision is an ethical UK supply base where workers enjoy safe and decent working conditions and businesses can operate on a level playing field. This is a more challenging goal than some may think.

Consumers may perceive ‘Made in Britain’ as synonymous with good quality and ethics, but the often-hidden conditions that many workers in UK fashion and homewares manufacturing face present a very different picture.

With heightened attention on the industry following exposés in 2020, we are at a crossroads to achieving sustainable change – and at Fast Forward we are committed to playing our part.

Abuse of workers' rights

Exploitation of workers in the UK textile and garment sector has been reported many times.

In 2015, the University of Leicester highlighted that the majority of workers in Leicester’s garment sector earned around £3 per hour. The Financial Times report ‘Dark Factories’ in 2017 confirmed similar findings.

And in the summer of 2020, reports emerged from Labour Behind the Label and various media outlets emphasising that these exploitative practices remained normal practice, and that workers were at even greater risk as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is Fast Forward?

Fast Forward was developed together with New Look, ASOS and River Island in 2014 to address concerns of these exploitative practices in UK fashion manufacturing going undetected by existing social compliance audits. Joined by early adopters including M&S, Next, and The Very Group, Fast Forward was proven as an effective methodology to uncover hidden exploitation.

However, these retailers’ efforts to improve labour practices in UK garment fashion factories through audits, training, de-listing exploitative suppliers and intelligence sharing with authorities were not sufficient to change the systemic issues, because unethical manufacturers were able to sell their products to other brands and there were little if any repercussions for poor practice.

As a result of the endemic non-compliance with legal standards in the UK, many retailers simply reduced their UK sourcing and offshored much of their production.

New revelations about fast fashion in 2020

The refocusing of attention in the summer of 2020 proved a tipping point – raising awareness amongst a much wider pool of brands that the UK remains a high-risk sourcing destination, and the need to deploy robust monitoring to help uncover hidden exploitative practices and support suppliers willing to improve through training and access to guidance and resources.

Since autumn 2020, nearly 20 new brands and retailers have joined the programme, committing to driving ethical practices in their UK supply chains. This critical mass presents an opportunity for the programme to help drive the industry-wide improvements that we seek.  

We believe that the UK has the potential to build a world-leading, innovative, ethical fashion and homewares manufacturing industry, delivering decent and highly skilled creative jobs.

Brands committed to this are invited to join Fast Forward.

Of the brands in the Ethical Consumer high street clothing brands guide (update 18th August), the following were signed up to Fast Forward: ASOS, Boohoo Group, In the Style, I Saw it First, M&S, Missguided, New Look, and Next.

Consumers can see the full list of which brands have signed up to Fast Forward on the Fast Forward website.