The true price of fashion

The impact of the fashion industry goes much further than the environment

The environmental impact of fashion is plain to see. The industry emits 10% of total annual global emissions, equivalent to the amount produced by the European Union. Textile production generates more greenhouse gas emissions than shipping and aviation combined, and the sector is the second largest user of the world’s water. But the impact on social and human rights issues is less well-known, making it easily ignored.

Modern slavery is a real risk, and fashion is the sector with the second-highest risk of being exposed to it. Most production is outsourced to developing countries, where 80% of garment workers are women aged 18-35. Extremely low wages, dangerous working conditions and high levels of poverty are common.

Between 2000-14, clothing production doubled. While the costs of most other commodities have risen, fashion prices have steadily fallen. The leap in demand for affordable, trend-based clothing has led to the rise of fast fashion. As brands raced to meet demand, they slashed production lead times, cut textile quality and pushed for lower manufacturing costs. These saving initiatives are pushed further down the supply chain to those who can least bear the burden.

In Bangladesh, garment workers are paid one of the lowest legal wages in the world – around $96 a month. The Bangladeshi government’s wage board suggests that a garment worker needs 3.5 times that amount to ‘live a decent life with basic facilities’. In contrast, it takes the average chief executive officer of a top fashion brand just four days to earn what one of their garment workers will earn in a lifetime.

And the impact of fashion on the human rights of workers has been exacerbated by Covid-19. When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, many fashion companies cancelled large orders with garment factories to offset supply chain risk – in some cases, the orders had already been shipped. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, #PayUp, global fashion brands have refused to pay for over $16bn worth of goods since the pandemic began. In many cases, this has left factories unable to pay their workers amid a global crisis.

The industry is starting to make efforts to tackle its environmental issues. The Apparel Impact Institute has announced the creation of the $250m Fashion Climate Fund ‘to unlock a total of $2bn in blended capital towards verified impact solutions, thereby removing up to 150m tonnes of carbon dioxide from the apparel supply chain.’ This is a significant step for the one of the worst-emitting sectors in the world.

However, the industry’s financial commitment to social issues leaves much to be desired. One of the major barriers is the supply chain. ‘The supply chain has fragmented over the last few decades considerably,’ said Nik Hammer, associate professor of work and employment at the University of Leicester. The offshoring of garment production to developing countries means there is a considerable distance between regulators and garment workers, and the subcontracting of work between factories means the supply chain is the biggest it has ever been. With so many moving pieces, it is difficult to monitor and reform poor working practices.

Until there is an overhaul of the supply chain and a major shift in the prioritisation of profit over lives, these issues will not be solved. International standards are needed to regulate working conditions, textile quality and fair manufacturing prices in the fashion industry. The current model isn’t sustainable – in all senses of the word. If brands don’t start embracing production methods that focus on the wellbeing of garment workers and the protection of the environment, they will be left behind in the transition to net zero.

While these production methods may cost brands more in the short term, a report by the Global Fashion Agenda found that addressing environmental and social problems created by the fashion industry would provide a $192bn overall benefit to the global economy by 2030. Prioritising profits over lives may not be a viable option for much longer – environmentally, ethically and economically.

Sarah Moloney is Subeditor, OMFIF.

This article was published in the Sustainable Policy Institute Journal, summer edition.

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