The fashion industry: Broken beyond repair
The fashion industry is a shattered reflection of an equally broken economic system. It is responsible for 10% of global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, and 20% of wastewater through dying agents alone. The garment sector’s environmental catastrophes are only topped by the agriculture and fossil industry – its impacts are far from evenly distributed across our planet. Whereas countries in the Global North reap the benefits of cheap clothing, people in producing countries pay a hefty price:
“Just think about the million pieces of pairs of jeans that we produce or the shirts; I mean in that way we have used the drinking water for, I think, the next 200 years, that people are supposed to and now have already been used.” (Kalpona Akter)
Over 75million – although some estimates rise to 400million – people employed in different garment sectors in countries such as China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, or Honduras (UNECE, 2018) face the disproportionate and multiplied burdens of climate violence and injustice. Their hardship is amplified by localised exploitation of the environment and people to meet the demands of big fashion, the fast-paced, wasteful and energy intensive fashion industry controlled by corporate elites in the Global North and driven by the profit growth imperative of economies in the Global North. Garment workers have been historically exploited by a predatory political economy that neglects their basic needs. The permissive environment created by globalisation enables powerful fashion corporations to profit from a destructive ‘race to the bottom’ where countries and manufacturfactories compete to offer the lowest production prices. If production costs increase to meet, say a higher labour cost or to meet environmental or health and safety standards then decisions in the company boardrooms in the Global North can opt to move their orders to countries with laxer regimes. In this way, despite a constant struggle for dignity, female workers, who make up most of the workforce, have been denied living wages, their right to unionise, safe working environments or appropriate measures against climate change (Anner, 2020).
If one were to believe the garment and textile industry, both, social and environmental issues are being worked on extensively. This portrayal, postulated by fashion giants such as H&M towards consumers, however, does not reflect reality:
“The needs of garment workers are notably absent from brand press releases, and while they may be a part of private closed-door conversations as a result of pressures from campaigners, their needs in this time of crisis have yet to be addressed.” (Brydges & Hanlon 2020, p.196)
In Bangladesh, the garment sourcing hub of global fashion brands, even the few factories certified as “green” by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association (BGMEA) are lacking in terms of labour and human rights mechanisms or ensuring climate resilience and community safeguarding (Butler, 2022).
A report by Solidarity Centre points out the interplay of environmental and social issues within the garment and fashion industry, finding that genuinely “green solutions” require improved working conditions instead of simply reducing carbon emissions or greening the product. (Parson et al., 2022)
This systemic failure of current measures is not only harshly reflected in the status quo, but also in future outlooks: The fashion industries GHG emissions are on track to increase by 50% until 2030, and with current lacklustre measures, workers in producing countries will become more vulnerable and affected than ever (World Bank Group, 2019).
A major force driving us into this deadlock is the rigidity of mainstream visions of the future of fashion and the garment industry. Neoliberal, profit chasing ideologies revolving around an ever-growing economy shape current measures taken by governments and private actors that often treat human and environmental rights as lists to be checked and turned into profit, instead of a radical opportunity to re-imagine the future.
A glimpse of a Just Future: Rebirth beyond growth
The fashion industry is pollutive and harmful, yet millions of people’s livelihoods depend on it. “We want our jobs, but we want them with dignity” says Kalpona, and that “it is time to buy less, but still buy clothes,” she illumines an often-ignored issue: Countries such as Bangladesh, and subsequently the livelihoods of millions of people are closely tied to the levels of production of big brand fashion companies. There would be no justice in a future that puts the needs of garment workers, and indeed the farmers producing cotton and the homeworkers who are often hidden from consumer view, anywhere but the centre.
A truly Just Future can be easy to imagine: It is bottom-up, worker-led and feminist. Future Fashion is freed from colonial legacies, provides dignified livelihoods and living wages for everyone. Production is slowed, lowered, localised and utility is increased to nourish the earth instead bleeding it dry. Big-fashion is dead; growth makes way for rebirth. Revolutionary concepts that challenge the predatory global meta-narrative have existed for centuries. Indigenous ontologies such as BuenVivir (living well), for example, go beyond simply providing alternative forms of development by challenging the concept of anthropocentric development itself. Drawing on those notions, Kate Raworth’s (2017) framework of Doughnut Economics fuses planetary boundaries with human-needs based social objectives providing a detailed framework in which all of humanity can thrive without exploiting our planet.
The power of garment workers to turn those visions into reality are evident in the case of Honduras, which ranks second in per capita garment exports. Ignited by a legally binding agreement between Fruit-of-the-Loom and garment workers, signed in 2009, unionisation among Honduran garment-workers drastically increased. In 2021, 44% of them were covered by Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA’s).
Collective bargaining is a process through which workers, represented by their trade unions, negotiate contracts with an employer, or groups of employers, for terms of employment above those provided for under the law regarding compensation, hours of work, health and safety, and a range of benefits (Anner, 2022, p.6)
In unity, workers were able to leverage multinational corporations for better wages, gender-equal pay, or educational funds for their children.
While the changes that the Honduras’ garment sector underwent in just a few years are remarkable, workers remain in a constant struggle for decent livelihoods and significant steps are needed to achieve genuine justice. It is not by accident that transnational corporations want workers to be fragmented and non-unionised. Solidarity gives power to the people. Power to reclaim their agency. Power that threatens the current growth-based system and the profit margins of corporations. Corporations are aware of this.
Pathways: Justice through Intersectional Unity and Global Solidarity
Change never comes easy – workers are fighting an unequal fight where every single accomplishment could be undermined. Perceiving the increase in workers’ rights as a threat to their profits, transnational textile giants are already threatening to move their production to other locations with laxer requirements to cut costs (Anner, 2022). For a Just Transition it is crucial to extend the efforts strenuously won by the Honduran people to every worker across the globe. But as Kalpona rightfully stresses, the burden of evoking change must not solely remain on the backs of garment-workers.
“We need solidarity; support from all – everyone who cares about us, who cares about workers, who cares about climate; who cares about people who are climate affected. We need to work together and bring these changes.”
Unsurprisingly, corporations have their own ideas of what this support may look like. Brands want people to believe that the crisis can be averted by individual behaviour change, such as buying less fast-fashion, or promoting “greener” clothes. This, however, is a dangerous fallacy. Kalpona calls out the hypocrisy corporations use to shift the blame away from themselves:
“It is the responsibility of all those brand retailers, the corporations who make a fool out of all of us with their profit greed, and through making all these cheap clothes, putting our lives in long hour shifts with low wages while selling these clothes to you and harming the climate.”
Enormous power-asymmetries allow transnational textile giants such as H&M, Shein or Zara to dictate demand to consumers as well as suppliers. (McGuire & Laaser, 2021). They are the ones who need to be held accountable. And there are hard-won worker-led initiatives that show they can be held accountable. The renewal and expansion in 2021 of the Bangladesh Accord to become the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry is one example. In 2013 the horror of the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed over 1100 people shone a global spotlight on the industry – galvanising public opinion, international labour right groups alongside Bangladeshi and global trade unions to create legally binding agreements with brands. In 2021 those alliances came together again to ensure the Accord was not lost but remained legally binding and applicable to more countries.
In 2022 the tenacity of the Indian women and Dalit-worker led union TTCU led to the Dindigual Agreement, an enforceable brand agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment at Eastman factories in Tamil Nadu in India. Legally binding mechanisms that cross national boundaries are vital tools to control the destructive ‘race to the bottom’ of corporations simply moving orders to countries with laxer regulatory regimes.
Beyond holding corporations to account, a radical change of who decides and controls the production of our clothing and footwear would transform the industry and offer a just degrowth transition. Tansy Hoskins is inviting us to ask what different and positive people and planet decisions would be possible if social production was organised by workers, rather than the profit decisions of today’s big fashion “corporate dictatorship” using the example of the Rana Plaza on unsafe working conditions:
“The workers of Rana Plaza died because they had no control whatsoever over the factory they worked in. They were coerced into entering a building they knew was unsafe....because the factory, and thus the lives of the workers, were controlled by a rich businessman who was in thrall to the needs of multinationals.” and by contrast “Social production organised by workers would end unsafe working practices because no one is going to vote to work in a death trap.”
The fashion industry is not an anomaly, but a hideous manifestation of a global reality. As much as a Just Transition in the fashion industry needs solidarity beyond the realm of garment workers, our planet needs a Just Transition that is intersectional and reaches beyond the realms of the fashion industry, encompassing multiple dimensions. For nations to ensure climate justice, neo-colonial power-structures that have favoured the Global North for centuries, need to be abolished. Climate reparations need to be paid; predatory debt needs to be forgiven. Only the decay of the old may nurture a change-facilitating environment capable of rebirth.
A Just Transition is only possible if it is applied, and won, across nations and borders. The intersectional movement building, and policy changes required to navigate this challenging territory must have a strong, labour movement at its heart. This makes the struggle for freedom of association, to join and form trade unions central to the just transition cause.
- Anner, M. (2020). Squeezing workers’ rights in global supply chains: Purchasing practices in the Bangladesh garment export sector in comparative perspective. Review of international political economy, 27(2), 320-347.
- Brydges, T., & Hanlon, M. (2020). Garment worker rights and the fashion industry’s response to COVID-19. Dialogues in Human Geography, 10(2), 195-198.
- Butler, C. (2022, April 20). ’the factory is green, the job is not’-bangladesh garment worker. Solidarity Center. Retrieved October 25, 2022, from https://www.solidaritycenter.org/the-factory-is-green-the-job-is-not-bangladesh-garment-worker/
- Hoskins, T (2022) The anticapitalist book of fashion. Pluto Press, 268-274.
- McGuire, D., & Laaser, K. (2021). ‘You have to pick’: Cotton and state-organized forced labour in Uzbekistan. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 42(3), 552-572.
- Parsons, L., Lawreniuk, S., Sok, S., & Buckley, J. (2022) Hot trends: How the global garment industry shapes climate change vulnerability in Cambodia. Royal Holloway, University of London and University of Nottingham
- Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.
- UNECE. (2018, July 12). UN Alliance aims to put fashion on path to Sustainability. UNECE. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from https://unece.org/forestry/press/un-alliance-aims-put-fashion-path-sustainability
- World Bank Group. (2019, October 8). How much do our wardrobes cost to the environment? World Bank. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente