The rate of climate change is now ‘gobsmackingly bananas’. 2023 became the hottest year on record, with September being 1.8 oC warmer than pre-industrial levels. Man-made climate change is the result of high levels of carbon emissions released by burning fossil fuels and other human activities. Despite pledges and commitments, governments, industries and companies fail to take decisive climate action to limit global warming to 1.5oC.

 



 

 

Decarbonization, avoiding and reducing carbon emissions by phasing-out fossil fuels, is vital, but it should not be done in isolation. Environmental actions result in intergenerational societal consequences and paradoxical tensions exist between environmental and social dimensions that must be taken into account. While we need to take urgent steps to phase out fossil fuels and decarbonize, we need to ensure this happens in a fair, inclusive and equitable way, or we could be creating more issues into the future.

Garment workers are under constant pressure due to operational and quality targets

Just transition emerges as a concept to ensure that climate actions also protect communities, their rights and wellbeing. Just transition ensures climate action and social equity happen holistically in order to prevent community deprivation, poverty and depopulation. Community inclusion and representation are needed to ensure successful just transitions, as communities bring traditional know-how, local knowledge and context-based innovations to solve climate issues rather than contributing to them. Hence, the people side of decarbonization, which has previously been pretty much ignored, must get proper attention to better understand how to decarbonize in a fair, just and inclusive way.

 

Just transition for decarbonisation: An illustrative case from the fashion industry

The $2.4 trillion global fashion industry is a ‘red-flag’ that is increasingly scrutinized by policymakers and civil society. The fashion industry operates labour-intense and globally-dispersed supply chains and emits about 8-10% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Aiming to tackle global warming, influential fashion brands, who we call ‘fashion giants’, set ambitious climate goals, for example both H&M and Inditex aim to reach net-zero by 2040. Yet fashion giants are off track on climate targets with increasing supply chain emissions. Most fashion giants failed to make progress eliminating coal and other fossil fuels from their supply chains and there are misleading environmental actions that raise ethical questions. Fashion giants need to decarbonize their supply chains but fashion production keeps creating severe environmental, economic, social and psychosociological consequences, particularly for workers across supply chains.

 

 

What impedes just transition within fashion supply chains?

Our multi-level action research investigating multiple fashion supply chains in transition identifies issues that impede a just transition to a low-carbon fashion industry.

Decarbonization: avoiding and reducing carbon emissions by phasing-out fossil fuels

Fashion supply chains are characterized by paradoxical demands. Fashion giants are driven by financial growth and pursue cost-reduction strategies that are routinely passed onto their suppliers. Fashion giants claim to be focused on environmental issues, but their suppliers are experiencing paradoxical requirements. For example, fashion giants demand products with water-intensive processes and colours while pushing suppliers for water-footprint reduction; they rank their suppliers based on their on-time delivery but give last-minute orders. Operational flexibility, reduced costs, increased production, and increased sustainability requirements are asked of direct tier-1 suppliers but these suppliers are finding it increasingly difficult to manage the fashion giants’ conflicting operational, quality and sustainability requests and then have to cascade these demands onto lower-tier suppliers, usually with even less time or resources.

 

Standardized tools result in relationship detachment. Our study showed that fashion giants manage their fragmented supply chains using top-down governance structures. Fashion giants partner with industry associations and third-party institutions that share similar business interests, resulting in arms-length industry standards and tools. These standardized tools lead to unintentional consequences. Suppliers manipulate data to increase their performance scores, for example, some suppliers disclose lower performance scores strategically or report lower numbers, knowing that getting a higher score the following year will be easier. Context-specific, community-led social innovations are routinely ignored and radical decarbonization by suppliers is disincentivized and systematically exclude suppliers’ managers and workers in decision-making.

The climate emergency cannot be tackled with top-down, ‘one-size fits all solutions’ or industry standards.

An average tier-1 supplier produces about 20% of a finished garment, the remainder outsourced to subcontractors, but many subcontractors are hidden from the brands, creating a complex and contested supply chain characterized by coercion and danger. We found evidence of criminal activity as well as data manipulation in fashion supply chains.

Fashion giants work with third-party auditors to control and validate data, but the data collected is inherently flawed. The fashion giants have created a detachment from their lower-tier suppliers and workers by using third parties to govern supply chain relationships. Unfortunately, suppliers reported that third-party auditors, in most cases, lack technical knowledge to control and understand data while also failing to understand or report on local, cultural and context-based issues that are crucial to lower-tier suppliers and where they want to focus their efforts for most impact.

The fashion industry operates labour-intense and globally-dispersed supply chains and emits about 8-10% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

Fashion giants and industry associations ignore physical and psychological damage to workers. Fashion giants appear to be unaware of the lived realities of the workers in their supply chains and the impact of their paradoxical requirements and standardized tools. Garment workers are under constant pressure due to operational and quality targets. Most workers interviewed talked about the physiological and psychological damage caused by the demands of the fashion brands. Protective equipment, required for compliance with the fashion giants’ health and safety rules, are often unused because it impacts the speed and quality of production. In the pursuit of sustainability, brands use both training and auditing, but both are stated as disruptive to the production line, where workers must deliver finished garments as fast as possible. We witnessed that many supplier sustainability management teams try to uphold the protection of workers and workers’ rights but the dominant culture in many factories is characterised by fear and ruled by line managers who are under pressure due to the fashion giants’ paradoxical demands. All of this results in detrimental effects on the workers’ physical and mental health.

 

 

What is needed to enable just transition within complex fashion supply chains?

Framing innovation as the solution, the fashion industry cannot meet emission reduction targets by sticking with their usual practices. Just transition principles are needed but these must be understood as context-specific interventions. Each supplier in each production country needs specific and individual means to reduce emissions in a fair, inclusive and equitable way. Legislation, ideas and cultural norms vary between production countries, therefore the climate emergency cannot be tackled with top-down, ‘one-size fits all solutions’ or industry standards. Decarbonization must happen with supply chain communities, embracing grassroots initiatives and workers and suppliers with specialized knowledge in terms of context, production and consumption systems.

We suggest a number of pathways at three levels for decarbonizing fashion supply chains in socially fair ways. These ideas are built from the lived experiences of suppliers’ managers and workers to ensure that just transitions do not become a window-dressing exercise characterized by vague corporate commitments and that this becomes an inclusive and holistic action plan for the benefit of everyone in the fashion industry.

 

 

Industry-level Changes.

  1. Lobby Government: Fashion giants must commit to developing post-growth mechanisms with governments to ensure incentive and financial systems meet the needs of the planet and its people.
  2. Tackle Overproduction: Fashion giants must tackle ‘the elephant in the room’ of the industry, to reduce the volume of clothing produced each year which currently stands at 100 billion items.
  3. Shorten and Decomplex Supply Chains: Less suppliers in the supply chain ensures that supply chains can decarbonize rapidly and transparently.

 

Brand and supplier-level Changes.

  1. Supplier Development: Building relationships means with fewer suppliers and ensures they are integrated in the decision making processes in terms of goal setting, strategy development and performance measurement.
  2. Financial Assistance: Giving suppliers finance or access to financing to invest in lower-carbon technologies and processes.
  3. Assessment Beyond the Numbers: Facilitating strong supply chain relationship mechanisms to move from punishment and distrust to innovation and trust.

 

 

Worker-level Changes.

  1. Living Wage: Ensuring a living wage is paid to allow every fashion worker to have a basic standard of living must become commonplace, otherwise the cycle of exploitation of workers, most of whom are women, in this industry will continue.
  2. Decent Working Conditions: Ensuring working conditions throughout the supply chain will be easier with shortened and decomplexed supply chains.
  3. Inclusivity: Assuring workers’ voices are heard in decision-making and management will boost innovation and ensure the success of sustainability initiatives.

 

Read Remake’s 2024 Accountability Report To Learn More about How we can stop the climate crisis!

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