Sustainability is often seen as the quest for a viable future, but this definition fails to account for who this viable future will accommodate. We cannot pursue the mission for a bright future without addressing the ethical issues currently at the core of the fashion industry.
Speaking at CFS+ 2021, Ayesha Barenblat, CEO & Founder, Remake, examined the industry’s dependency on the 65 million people in the fashion value chain: “Today, the industry, whether luxury or high street, is built on the backs of garment makers, most of whom are Black and Brown women and the only way that this industry continues to stay profitable is at the cost of garment makers.”
There is no doubt that in many ways, the current fashion business model fails to protect marginalised communities and maintains systemic inequalities, yet why are we not seeing the radical change that is so needed in this area of the industry? Why has the quest for growth continued to prevail over ethical behaviour? Can profitability and prosperity ever work in harmony?
The fashion industry has the potential to empower and provide for the millions of people producing our clothes, and whilst this is an ethical imperative, the means by which we are to achieve this are subject to different perspectives.
In order to keep up with the pace of the industry whilst remaining conscious of costs, supply chain operations often outsource production to low and middle-income countries, where human rights regulations are rarely enforced sufficiently.1 However, we must also recognise that these injustices are taking place worldwide, take for example Leicester in the UK – this is not a problem of specific countries but speaks to systemic issues and a failing business model.
Just two weeks ago California passed Senate Bill 62, otherwise known as the Garment Worker Protection Act – this has a multitude of implications, but at its core will prohibit piece pricing (where workers are paid per garment), ensure hourly wages for garment workers, and will mean that both manufacturers and brands are liable for wage theft and illegal pay practices.
The hope is that this Bill (as well as other initiatives such as the Bangladesh Accord) might act as somewhat of a blueprint for the industry overall, galvanising action across the globe to close regulatory gaps and ensure joint liability.
Khalid Mahmood, Director of Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan & Regional Urgent Appeal Coordinator for South Asia – CCC, shared his perspectives on the central theme of CFS+, ‘Prosperity vs. Growth’. Speaking at the Summit, Mahmood suggested that we can envision a future where prosperity and growth are compatible, however, to do so we must reimagine what ‘growth’ means and ensure that it encompasses the quality of life of the people as opposed to just profits.
At present, research shows that many factories fail to comply with applicable minimum wage laws and that, even when in compliance with minimum wages, the wages paid in some garment-producing countries remain too low to meet the basic needs of workers.2 We must instead actively encourage living wages.
Many of the profits of the fashion business model are not trickling down into the very communities that this model is reliant upon. Khalid Mahmood poignantly concluded: “If the workers are not getting enough, somebody is getting more than enough.”
According to Dr. Rüdiger Fox, CEO, Sympatex Technologies, one of the most significant things that we can do is shift to a circular economy. Speaking at CFS+ 2021, Fox offered the view that in this scenario there is no one person in power, but rather, everybody is part of a circular system and reliant on one another. The relationships in the supply chain would in turn, fundamentally change.
It is essential, however, to ensure that the transition to a circular economy is a just one, with appropriate opportunities for the millions of people currently dependent on this industry.
Dr. Rüdiger Fox outlined his belief that there exists a disconnect between the realities of the supply chain and the realities of the shopping experience. Accordingly, to cultivate progress, we need compelling narratives, education for citizens, and to give a platform to the workers for their voices to be heard and amplified. Workers can offer a unique and invaluable perspective that cannot be accounted for elsewhere, communicating the lived and lingering effects of the current conditions.
The current asymmetry of power means that it is often dangerous for workers to organise, for Khalid Mahmood, giving voice to workers and listening to what they have to say is critical to progress. Whilst brands may not be wholly responsible, they have a crucial role to play in convincing employers to allow workers to have a much-needed seat at the table.
Read more about the social issues facing fashion in our article here.
1. Anguelov N. (2016). The dirty side of the garment industry: Fast fashion and its negative impact on environment and Society.
2. Global Fashion Agenda. (2021). Fashion CEO Agenda 2021.