How sustainable is unpaid labour?

Sorcha McCrory
Sorcha McCrory

Sorcha McCrory is a British writer, avoiding Brexit by absconding to Copenhagen. She is interested in fashion, pop culture and art, and the intersection of all three


In a city falling over itself to congratulate itself for using organic cotton, aren’t we forgetting one major flaw: how sustainable is unpaid labour?


Regularly, Copenhagen is applauded for being the wunderkind of sustainable fashion, championing slow and ecologically-friendly design that favours quality over trend. There’s no denying that the Danish fashion industry was an early adopter of sustainable consumerism and in doing so has become a prominent voice in global discussions of fashion’s toxic impact, but it would be foolish to think it isn’t just as archaic as the rest of the industry when it comes to inclusivity and diversity: maybe even more so. 


For some context on the cost of interning, as reported in the Guardian: “About 70,000 internships are offered each year in the UK, according to the Sutton Trust social mobility charity. It estimates that of 10,000 graduates who are in internships six months after they leave university, a fifth are unpaid. It has calculated the cost of doing an unpaid internship as more than £1,000 a month in London and £827 in Manchester, putting valuable work experience beyond the reach of those from families on low and middle incomes.”


In 2018, the UK began to crack down on unpaid internships, targeting individual employers advertising for unpaid internships. As it stands, UK labour law now states: “An intern’s rights depend on their employment status. If an intern is classed as a worker, then they’re normally due the National Minimum Wage”, further clarifying that interns not due a minimum wage must be student placements, school work experience or “voluntary work” for “charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund-raising body or a statutory body”. 


More importantly, why is this not being spoken about when we discuss sustainability?


Although the government admitted that there had been no prosecutions, this attempt to curb an often exploitative practice did result in Tanya de Grunwald, a campaigner for fair internships, reporting Vogue to HMRC. Of course, Vogue came out unscathed, but it’s nice to think it gave them a small pause for thought… Meanwhile, in France, any internship longer than two months must legally be a paid position – even a student placement. 


While I’m sure many companies are still finding loopholes to reasonable compensation, this public discourse and statutory control empowers those being exploited to recognise their own unfair treatment – and helps them to challenge it. 


Why then, has Danish law failed to come down on the escalating issue of unpaid labour? More importantly, why is this not being spoken about when we discuss sustainability?


A search on’s job page on any given day will result in multiple entry to midweight positions advertised as an internship. While over on, job titles including keywords such as “manager”, “genius” and even “wizard” all turn out to be for unpaid internships. All of these roles contain a job spec that would qualify as meaningful work necessary for the day-to-day running of the company. 



This narrow filter doesn’t just prevent those from lower incomes from succeeding, it prevents most people that weren’t born into the Danish system



Internships should serve as a teaching opportunity, giving the intern experience in a specific industry that allows them to make decisions about their career path. The company benefits, providing they have a good cohort, by securing the best talent upon graduation/completion. It should not be the job of an intern to perform tasks that are necessary for the company’s growth, nor should internships be a cost cutting exercise in replacing entry level roles with unpaid labour. Yet so many companies, indiscriminate in their hiring, will happily exploit a supply that outstrips demand without a second thought for retention. Have you ever heard of anything more at odds with sustainability? What, exactly, is sustainable about a business model that is reliant on unpaid labour and a revolving door of fresh blood? 


It bears repeating that only a select few can follow through these internships – many of which can last up to 6 months, while some last a full year – to reach the dangling carrot: paid employment within the company. These roles are almost always full-time and don’t leave enough hours in the week to work the required amount to cover necessities. Unless you come from a family willing to pay your rent and bills for a calendar year, or have relatives who live within commuting distance of this “opportunity”, you are automatically excluded. 


There is a tendency to normalise and romanticise this period in a creative career, but doing so has created a complacency towards employment rights, has devalued labour and is now a dangerous weapon wielded by the most exploitative companies functioning today. If the gatekeepers of the industry can’t recognise that working “for the love of it” isn’t enough for those without the means to do so, the narrative will continue that those unwilling or unable are lazy, ungrateful or simply not tough enough.



It cannot continue to grow as a global influence and remain as closed off as it is to diverse talent



This narrow filter doesn’t just prevent those from lower incomes from succeeding, it prevents most people that weren’t born into the Danish system. Working for free is especially challenging in a foreign country, and Copenhagen’s tendency to keep to its own makes breaking into the scene near impossible for anyone not educated in the country. 


With Copenhagen Fashion Week’s rapid growth and Denmark leading the conversation around sustainable and ethical fashion, there comes international attention. Copenhagen now stands at an impasse, it cannot continue to grow as a global influence and remain as closed off as it is to diverse talent. Not only because ideas start to get stale if they’re only being generated by such a limited gene pool, but because the rest of the world is going to start asking questions. 


Call me biased, but I believe the “Danish” in “Danish design” should stand for more than white, middle-class, a friend from school with someone at the company and living in an Andel in Nørrebro their parents bought when they were born. There is nothing sustainable about this being the only seat at the table. 


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