By many accounts, any attempt to bail out struggling Bangladeshi garment workers facing starvation and ruin amid the COVID-19 pandemic would be a good thing. And for the most part, Lost Stock, a U.K. scheme that repackages jettisoned garments from canceled Western orders as “mystery boxes” for resale, appears to be a brilliant way to offset the one-two punch of inventory glut and unpaid employees.
But some critics now question the initiative’s effectiveness, arguing that yoking consumers rather than brands with the responsibility of rescuing workers merely puts a charitable gloss on the larger systemic issues that made something like Lost Stock necessary in the first place. They also wonder if the scheme lets retailers such as Topshop, Bestseller, C&A, Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Kohl’s, Primark, Sears and Urban Outfitters off the hook for invoking contractual force-majeure clauses to shirk payment, impose deep retroactive discounts or drag out compensation on completed and in-progress goods commissioned before the viral outbreak threatened to torpedo their already-floundering bottom lines.
“First of all this is not ‘lost stock’; this is product that brands ordered and now refuse to pay for, so what it really is is a crime scene,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a labor-rights group that tracks the companies that have committed to paying their suppliers—and names and shames those that have not. “I know the people involved are well-meaning but I don’t think that selling small bits of this material to consumers is the best way to address the injustices that have been perpetrated here. The proper approach to addressing this problem is maximizing pressure on brands and retailers to fulfill their moral and contractual obligations to suppliers and workers.”