Updated: May 22
Common Objective notes there are over 181 million people in precarious fashion work across the globe.1 These workers face long hours and low pay, often dictated by how many pieces they create an hour. Further, factory owners and managers fire pregnant workers or deny maternity leave, retaliate against workers who associate with unions, force workers to work overtime or risk losing their job and do nothing when male managers or workers sexually harass their female counterparts. Since the industry is often the only source of income for many, it holds another level of exploitative power over its workers. Sometimes the developing country can be over-reliant on the precarious industry for employment and earnings, creating economic devastation when production is relocated to where labor is even cheaper and regulations are lax or nonexistent.
Repercussions of this exploitation do not just impact those employed in the factories. The children and families of the workers are put through the intense distress of living near poverty and lack medical care, education, and other important quality of life characteristics often common to children of a higher economic status. Migration between and within garment-producing countries is also quite frequent, putting more strain on children and mothers already on the brink. As such, families in the industry lack opportunity for economic mobility and endure a very low quality of life. These are peripheral results of the extreme commodification of labor.
Some factories commit to ethical sourcing and humane labor practices, but they only make up 2% of the total amount of factories involved in the industry according to a Common Objective Fashion Industry Report. Corporate accountability needs to increase among participating countries for this practice to become more widespread.
Many countries are involved in the international trade of basic inputs and final products in the industry in a somewhat competitive landscape, although there is some monopoly power. For example, according to the report, 92 countries reported cotton exports in 2016, but just four countries accounted for 79.5% of these exports. The industry, in addition to labor concerns, also has a massive environmental footprint. This footprint manifests through its ecological impact, waste amount, and impact on wildlife.
The Common Industry Report sheds light on this. In 2016, the fashion industry was the 4th largest CO2 emitter globally, not including the emissions from freight transport. Additionally, used garments are regularly discarded, which creates both immense amounts of physical waste and large amounts of byproducts from the actual manufacturing and refinement process. The production and dye process is water-intensive and it sometimes comes from fragile ecosystems - sometimes putting biodiversity and wildlife at risk. Further, toxic waste from production can and has polluted waterways and runoffs even impacting the drinking water of communities.
In terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, The McKinsey Consultancy tells us the industry emits roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases per year as the economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.2
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store. That equates to the emission of around 33.4 kilograms of carbon equivalent.”3 Imagine this process for your other garments and just the smallest wardrobe, even in the western world, which still accounts for a large number of resources. Moreover, UNEP and the Macarthur Foundation published these pretty noteworthy figures:4
These figures begin to show just the massive scale of the fashion industry in our world. At this scale, not only does a significant paradigm shift in the business practices of the companies need to change, but the consumption habits of consumers need to change as well. Although I believe the argument, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” holds quite a bit of merit, we must recognize that even if our current system persists, actions must change to address an industry that ravages resources in the way this industry does. We have to try. The corporations need to be held accountable - undoubtedly, but you must understand there is no need for an extravagant consumption of cheap foreign-made clothing to the point of causing serious environmental degradation.
Amid the bad, there are some examples of sustainable and healthful business practices. For example, Masha Maria (MM) is based out of Amsterdam. The brand is focused on upcycling and transformation. They reshape vintage blankets into stylish winter coats for all. Essentially, they take what you have already and re-imagine it into another shape, which gives the garment a “new purpose”. In terms of production, MM uses a local, woman-owned production facility. This facility employs a small team that is paid a salary (rather than a rate-by-piece payment) and works with strict hours to keep people working only when they are scheduled to do so. Additionally, all of the material is sourced from real people and not from mass-producing fabric companies.
A company such as Masha Maria embraces “Slow Fashion”, or the awareness and approach
to production that considers such things as sustainability, animal welfare, the environment, and the people employed across the industry. This could be the antithesis of the often said, “fast fashion”, which now often elicits negative emotion. Adopting and embracing slow fashion could be a method for the industry to change. A new approach that focuses on the wellbeing of all those who are involved is certainly one way to begin addressing these issues.
As the system that the industry operates in will probably not change anytime soon, it is up to those currently in it to recognize and commit to changing, from production to the retail environment. Whether that be from using upcycled material, recognizing unions and treating workers with dignity, or a combination of those, there is a collective role to be played.
The Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion shed some more light on how the industry can begin transitioning to new, more sustainable practices from a macro perspective.6 This approach is more holistic, adding new standards to each component of the firm’s value chain. For example, seek to implement efficiency and green innovation throughout all stages, from design to manufacturing. A simple start could be re-imagining the package a product ships in. Could you get more with less? A more complex adaptation could be aligning a firm’s carbon-based or waste reduction goals with concrete benchmarks from the Paris Climate Accord or other reputable institutions or NGOs.
Conclusively, the fashion industry is wide-ranging in its impacts. From the workers who build the garment to the retail sales worker, to the end consumer. An industry so far-reaching has its fair share of issues. Ultimately, the dynamic is cheap, moderately priced clothing created at the expense and exploitation of the worker who made it all while extracting significant amounts of resources and initiating environmental degradation. This can be fixed. Accordingly, you must do your best to shop sustainably and responsibly, patronizing responsible manufacturers and retailers when possible. We must realize all those who are adversely impacted when fast fashion is the norm.
Images Courtesy Olga Kotova of Masha Maria.
“Ethical Fashion Information: Resources,” Common Objective: Resources (Common Objective, n.d.), https://www.commonobjective.co/search/resourcessortBy=created&sortOrder=desc.
Achim Berg et al., “Fashion on Climate,” McKinsey & Company (McKinsey Company, December 14, 2020), https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/fashionon-climate#.
María Fleischmann, “How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost to the Environment?,” World
Bank (The World Bank, n.d.), https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/
“Case Study: A Wardrobe in the Cloud,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d., https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/a-closet-in-the-cloud.
Cruz, Arianna, and Olga Kotova. Learning About Slow Fashion at Masha Maria. Personal, 2021.
British Fashion Council, Julie’s Bicycle, DHL, and Centre for Sustainable Fashion. “Fashion & Environment: An Overview of Fashion’s Environmental Impact + Opportunities for Action.” White Paper, n.d.