The hashtag #PayUp became widely used in the clothing industry during corona to call out large multinationals that suspended or cancelled their clothing orders in manufacturing countries. Niki De Schryver, COSH! founder, has been wondering ever since Fashion Revolution Week whether this hashtag should also be applied to Belgian brands. To find out, Niki joined forces with a freelance investigative journalist, Sarah Vandoorne. This post is the run-up to the results of the investigation. Read on to find out why this issue touches both entrepreneurs so much.

Did Belgian fashion brands have reason to celebrate at this year’s Week of Belgian Fashion?

Many Belgian fashion brands didn’t have many reasons to celebrate at this year’s Week of Belgian Fashion (Week van de Belgische Mode). Many retailers have had a rotten year, full of negative numbers, full of uncertainty.

According to trade union Comeos, the coronavirus has cost the Belgian fashion sector 1.5 billion euro in turnover. Add to that a difficult selling period with corona rates on the rise again… It still remains unclear how this new wave will impact retail figures this autumn. One thing is clear though: these are difficult times. For you and your loved ones. And for the many retailers and brands that have particularly missed their customers this year.

At COSH!, we have a lot of understanding and sympathy for Belgian fashion brands. That’s why there’s a filter available “I buy Belgian” on our shopping platform. We are very fond of “our” shops and hope they will get through this year.

Big and small brands: #PayUp

What we have a little less understanding and sympathy for are chain stores that decided to postpone and even cancel their clothing orders. Several large multinationals were guilty of this over the past year. Some of them belong to the richest families in the world. A number of them have still not agreed to reimburse their cancelled orders - you can see and keep track of them through a tracker from the US labour rights organisation Worker Rights Consortium. If, like us, you want to encourage international brands to do better and pay better, sign their petition and support the #PayUp campaign.

Large multinationals are not the only culprits in this story. Smaller brands, brands that often have less of a buffer than bigger players, have also been forced to postpone or cancel orders. Belgian companies have also done this. This is apparent in data from Bangladesh which investigative journalist Sarah Vandoorne got her hands on. Niki De Schryver, COSH! founder, believes this investigation is so important that she's dedicated herself and COSH! to it.

Why is this so important to us?

"Retailers, entrepreneurs and production companies have a heavy burden to bear", Niki knows. "They have to be able to pay their rent, their staff, they have to have sufficient cash flow to be able to continue ... It is not easy. Workers in manufacturing countries have not had it easy either. They have no savings to fall back on, they also have to pay their rent, but due to the corona crisis they have not received a large part of their wages".

That is why Niki launched another hashtag, #whosavedtheworkers, in April. "By doing so, I wanted to call for more transparency on behalf of Belgian brands, how they really stand and what they’re doing for workers who are struggling at least as hard as they are. It was not easy to find answers to that question. I discovered that this required a much bigger investigation, one that I was unable to carry out. This is why I chose to support an independent investigative journalist to find out".

Journalist Sarah Vandoorne greatly appreciates that. " In my work, I mainly talk about the faults in the system, not the mistakes of individual brands", she says. "Unless editors explicitly ask me to, I am often inclined not to name names. Now I’m doing just that. It’s not the big players but the small family businesses of our country. I, too, understand that they have not had an obvious year. But understanding is not a good enough reason to not carry out an investigation. One of the sources I spoke to first for this investigation, a journalist from Bangladesh who provided me with the data, said there is an immense difference between a bad year for a retailer and a bad year for a garment worker who has lost his income or job… One person will have food on the table the next day, the other will not. It is as simple as that. That is why I will continue with this research. Not because it is easy. But because it is necessary.”

There is an immense difference between a bad year for a retailer and a bad year for a garment worker who has (temporarily) lost his income… One person will have food on the table the next day, the other will not.

COSH does not want to throw brands under the bus, but wants to build bridges. Niki: "On the one hand you have activists and organisations such as Fashion Revolution and Clean Clothes Campaign investigating the clothing industry and bringing the problems out into the open. On the other hand, you have brands that contribute to solutions and sustainable retailers that really value social and ecological values. COSH! wants to position itself in between: we expose the problems, but also provide the solutions. We believe that the consumer chooses with their wallet. The shift in the fashion industry will come about by offering sustainable solutions to the consumer. In order to know what those sustainable solutions are, we need transparency and research".

And which brands are involved?

As you may have guessed by now, we will not mention any names in this blog. You’ll have to wait and see. Researcher Sarah Vandoorne has given all companies the right of reply and has spoken to many experts who bring much-needed nuance to this difficult debate. Naming names without acknowledging that nuance is deontologically incorrect, and neither Niki nor Sarah want to be involved in that.

You will have to wait a little while longer. Too curious? All right then, we will give you three figures. Sixteen Belgian companies are involved. According to the dataset, they have all together postponed or cancelled 7 million items of clothing worth 15 million euro. That can already count.

Are you also curious to find out how the Belgian brands reacted to our findings? Subscribe to our newsletter and you’ll know more within a few days.