Fashionably Sustainable

Environmental and Employee Impact

Our love affair with fashion is contributing to global catastrophe. And, while Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not a new concept, the clarion calls for the Fashion Industry (and its supply chains) to address the materials used, the treatment of workers and how waste is handled are growing. Included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, an increasing number of celebrities and fashion labels are supporting and practicing more sustainable fashion, attempting to ensure that suppliers follow environmentally ethical and humane labor standards. But, to do that, traditional supply chains need to be more transparent and traceable, and their very popularity may work against the trend.

Consumers, activists and the industry itself all agree that things need to change. Just what things and how is another story. Some say that consumers are the most powerful in the equation, others say that brands are, others call for global legislation, and others look to technology.

One thing all parties agree on is that there are no simple answers.

Who Can Make Changes?

‘The most powerful people in the supply chain are consumers,’ says activist Kalpona Akter. She has seen that every positive change in the industry has occurred because of consumer pressure. To illustrate, she points to the 2013 collapse of the garment factory in Dhaka that killed and wounded thousands of workers. ‘It was the consumer response to the Rana Plaza collapse that forced brands to demand better factory conditions. We had been begging them to take notice for years before that.’

Akter knows the problems of the global fashion industry better than most people. In Bangladesh, she worked under factory owners who flouted laws protecting workers’ rights, workplace safety and environmental protections.

‘It definitely wasn't my first choice to go to a factory to work at age twelve,’ Akter tells The Habtic Standard 1. She breathed in the smoke from the burning of textile waste. She saw rivers dyed with the year’s most popular color and smelled the fumes from industrial waste.

By the time she was 14 and with the guidance of older workers, Akter had successfully organized 92% of the factory floor to demand fair treatment under the law. Retribution from the factory owner was swift, many were fired and Akter was blacklisted as ‘a troublemaker’.

Akter is now working with the global Clean Clothes Campaign 2, a network dedicated to improving working conditions for garment workers all over the world. Her message to consumers is: ‘Don’t feel guilty about our situation. Get angry. Use your anger to demand change from the brands themselves.’

The Ethical Brand?

Brands often begin with bold statements and good intentions to encourage ethical standards and sustainability practices, yet these often fail to result in the higher wages and better working conditions that would make a material difference to textile workers.

Akter says,

Brands have two faces. One face for consumers in your part of the world. And one face for us that does not care about our part of the world.

Many brands show a lack of synergy between their (stated) ethical ambitions and the commercial imperative that drives daily decision-making. This can lead to the false impression that ethics are an indulgence and a money pit rather than a key investment decision intended to add corporate value.

According to Ben Vanpeperstraete of Clean Clothes Campaign 3: ‘that results in an internal hierarchy of a company where the buyers are already more important than the CSR people because the buyers are making the money and the CSR people are spending the money. So who gets the last word?’.

Buy Responsibly…

On the podcast Climate Curious, Baroness Lola Young, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion says, ‘If everyone does something small, then it becomes something big. If no one does anything, nothing changes.’ 4

Young warns against simplistic thinking when it comes to addressing the inter-connectedness of labor conditions and sustainability. ‘One of the things you’ll hear in relation to fashion sustainability is that fast fashion is the devil … everyone’s got to save up for something that costs a lot more and keep it for longer. Actually the really important bit is keeping it for longer.’

The Ethical Consumer?

Being a critical, responsible consumer is however, not as easy as it seems, as Ann Runnel, founder of Reverse Resources discovered for herself.

Runnel told The Habtic Standard 5 that her efforts to be ethical meant that she read every label and researched every product, agonizing over what to purchase. When her first child was a baby, she used cloth diapers. She stopped buying new clothes. One day she came to the conclusion that there was only so much she could do alone. ‘As a consumer, I realized that I couldn’t change the world.’

That’s when she decided to continue her studies to find a way to use the rigor of economics to better understand the business benefits of ecological values. Her focus was on the textiles industry. In particular, Runnel was looking at how fashion design could contribute to sustainability. This led her nearly 8000 kilometers from home, from Estonia to Bangladesh. Visits to factories made it painfully obvious that sustainability in the fashion industry was a much bigger problem than a design approach could solve. ‘There was so much waste, I couldn’t even imagine how much before seeing it for myself.’

Runnel came to understand that sustainability was not something design or consumers could solve. ‘Waste had to be solved at the corporate level.’

She saw an opportunity to use the application of economics to address textile waste. ‘How can we turn that waste into a resource? How can we restructure it so that the large brands who are the cause of the waste are also using it?’


Research conducted by her company Reverse Resources has documented massive under-reporting of pre-consumer waste. In some cases, they found that production waste was as high as 47%. With no economic incentive for manufacturers to properly report, a huge amount of waste goes underreported 6.

As long as there is no economic imperative to deal with waste properly, it’s someone else’s problem. Some pre-consumer waste ends up in dumps where it is burned, releasing toxins into the air. Some ends up picked up by middlemen who sort it for sale, reuse and recycling. Even when it’s possible to collect fabrics from refuse, there remains the problem of identifying and sorting them. Recycling technologies for plastics and textiles are still in their infancy, and their processes are still quite sensitive to the materials that get fed into them.

Yet Runnel reminds us to remain ‘rosily persistent.’ She is confident that the technology will mature and sorting will improve. In fact, her company has mapped out the requirements of the technologies so that fabrics can be sorted right at the factories and delivered to the correct destination. As a result, sorting waste becomes much more profitable.

Combined Approach

A combination of strategies is needed to really change the industry. Pressure needs to come from a broad range of stakeholders. Oxfam has encouraged consumers to buy second-hand clothes. Global Fashion Agenda has pushed brands to collect post-consumer textiles. The Clean Clothes Campaign urges brands to step in where governments have failed and enforce better labor conditions.

Organizations such as Fair Trade Certified 7, set standards for brands that include worker conditions and environmental protections. Successful outdoor wear brand Patagonia was the first company to receive Fair Trade certification. Its founder Yvon Chouinard wrote:

‘What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics.’ 8

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12 says, ‘Both transparency and traceability support visibility throughout the textile and clothing value chains and therefore contribute to build trust between stakeholders. Then all stakeholders will have access to the relevant information needed to make informed decisions, including but not limited to customers and business partners.’ 9

Designer Stella McCartney has been working with Extinction Rebellion to grow the market for ethical fashion, while the Norwegian Consumer Authority has challenged retailer H&M about the truthfulness of its sustainability claims. And, while luxury giant Kering, owner of labels such as Gucci and Saint Laurent, has worked to upgrade its sustainability, its brands’ rapid growth in 2018 offset any improvements they made 10. In fact, any fashion company pursuing high growth has a sustainability challenge.

Even while some consumers might be willing to pay more for an ethical product – even though it can sometimes be cheaper, there’s little sign that it’s improving anything in most factories. This is in part due to the lack of communication between CSR and accounting departments, that was mentioned earlier. As long as this continues, high growth and price competition will continue to drive industry practice. At the moment there is no immediate return on investment in a transparent and traceable supply chain, even though the technologies are ready to be adopted 11.

Even in countries like Poland, the United Kingdom 12 and the United States, garment workers fail to earn a minimum wage, let alone a living one. It’s a global problem with the attention of the World Bank, the UN, activists and the industry itself.

Everything is Connected

The fashion industry has enormous ‘ecological and human rights footprints’ 13. Change depends on critical consumers who demand ethical solutions and transparency about their effectiveness, and corporate planning that aligns ethics (CSR) with responsibility across all departments and makes ancillary parts of their supply chain complicit in change.

Runnel reports that there is positive movement. ‘Over six years, I have seen a massive change in the way things are done. There is a wish to do better. The problem is that so many people are used to thinking in a box. We need systems thinkers.’

We have to care about where our clothes came from and where they are going to end up. Think of the whole thing as a single system, Runnel explains: ‘What enables the shift to systems-thinking is the understanding that my actions affect others around me. We all need to start thinking about how what we do impacts those who are close to us as well as those who are three degrees or more away.’

Picture of Tori Egherman

Tori Egherman

Tori Egherman is a writer and storyteller who trains academics to communicate their research to a lay audience. Her work has been published on Frontline and The Guardian, as well as several other publications. Tori is co-author of the book Iran: View from Here and co-editor of Hope, Votes & Bullets.


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