What does it mean when one of the largest fast fashion retailers funds sustainable fashion research? It’s like the coal industry funding climate change research. Yet this is our reality, as many big brands put money behind research studies, developments in new technology and multi-stakeholder initiatives all in the name of sustainability. Take for example the Global Fashion Agenda, one of sustainable fashion’s biggest leaders which hosts Copenhagen Fashion Summit. It’s sponsored by ASOS, Nike, H&M, Target and Kering, “decision makers of the industry,” yet fails to converse with the workers and communities most impacted by ill-disciplined supply chains and unsustainable industry practices. Needless to say fast fashion retailers won’t be the ones to find solutions to end fast fashion.
Fashion’s race to the bottom began with production moving from Mexico and the DR-CAFTA region to China and then onward to Cambodia, Bangladesh and now Myanmar and Ethiopia. If we follow where global supply chains go, what’s clear is that sourcing decisions are not based on a country’s investment in sustainability or technology innovation or even having infrastructure in place.
The fast fashion supply chain moves to where labor laws are weak and law enforcement is weaker.
For 20 years now, brands have touted their codes of conducts, check-list focused audits and lengthy sustainability reports as examples of brand-led efforts making the fashion industry sustainable. But can we honestly say, outside of some modest gains in transparency with tier one factories, that the people and our planet are any better off? The fashion industry remains highly profitable with an estimated 2.4 trillion in total revenue, making it the world’s seventh largest economy in GDP terms. Yet the women who power this industry make less than half of what would be considered a living wage. According to the Global Apparel, Footwear and Textile Initiative, the fashion industry spends $2 billion a year on audits, while brands now openly recognize that monitoring rarely gets to the root causes of persistently poor working conditions. Imagine if this money was instead spent toward creating jobs with dignity.
More than 100 years ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 145 young immigrant women and we have seen history repeated itself with factory disasters claiming lives from Tazreen Fashion, Ali Enterprises to Rana Plaza. I wish these disasters were an anomaly.
But by 2030 our industry is projected to have 1.6 million injuries — we are already at 1.4 million.
The problem with brand-centric coalitions and funded research is to that profit always comes first and any sustainability investment must have a short-term “business case”. The H&M Foundation, funded by H&M’s founders and main owners the Stefan Persson family, created the Global Change Award in 2015 “to shift from a linear fashion industry to a circular one,” and “to push the fashion industry forward to protect the planet and our living conditions.” That all sounds nice on paper, but maybe H&M should start off by keeping their promise to pay the women making their products a living wage. Add to the hypocrisy that just a year ago, H&M produced $4.3 billion in unsold clothes and the facade of protecting the planet and living conditions quickly falls apart.
“Circularity” has become an increasingly trendy word in the world of fashion elites, but we can’t just circular fashion our way out of the desperate need to slash our volume of consumption.
On average, we’re purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing than 19 years ago and only keeping each garment for half as long. While creating a completely recyclable, no waste production cycle is ideal, what happens when brands keep turning out product to boost sales and produce too much? In 2017 Burberry destroyed $36.8 million worth of its own products. The circularity fairy can’t fix the scale and volume of consumption inherent within which is natural resource depletion and worker exploitation. Instead, we need new disruptive business models of rental, second-hand and vintage as solutions.
Blockchain is another popular word industry people like to throw around as a cure-all solution. Some argue that blockchain technology will finally bring transparency to the fashion supply chain. However, the fashion industry’s crisis is here now and the technology is still experimental and unregulated with no standards, laws or ruling body to oversee its proper use. How we would get shady supply chain data onto blockchain is a huge question mark. Much like how auditing and monitoring did not get to the root cause of fast fashion being inherently violent to people and the planet, so too is the case with blockchain.
Forget brand-led solutions that refuse to address the fashion industry’s unchecked growth. Here are 3 ideas that would actually lead to change:
Independent solutions-focused RESEARCH
We cannot start to tackle the multi-faceted problems with fashion by relying on research that is paid for by brands. I was excited to see the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, recent manifesto that stated: “the response of the fashion sector to the intensifying ecological crisis has been – and continues to be – over-simplified, fragmented and obstructed by the growth logic of capitalist business models as they are currently realized and practiced.” We need academically sound research on fashion’s impact on water, climate, waste and human lives that translates into real action.
At Remake we are focused on giving the mic back to the people on the frontlines of fashion’s bad behavior. Workers who have been trapped in a cycle of oppressive wages and working hours and are also grappling with water shortages, climate change and industrial disasters. Through our journeys we hear directly from the women who make our clothes and know that she has many ideas of what is needed. She doesn’t need brand-led trainings to be empowered. She needs a seat at the table.
Buy fewer and better things
Our growing conscious community knows that we can not just buy our way out of this mess, but instead we have to buy less and keep clothes in circulation longer. With our #wearyourvalues campaign we have seen a groundswell of everyday people move away from disposable clothing, Marie Kondo their closet, and use their voice and wallets to advocate for a more sustainable fashion industry.
I hope that funders in this space take note that we don’t need more investment in industry-led research and coalitions, feel-good sustainability conferences and chasing the next silver bullet technology solution. What we need funded are campaigns to pressure policy change, to support worker-led advocacy, to educate everyday people to buy less and to call brands to the carpet. We need to take power back — because the sharing of power never works. We need a real reckoning with the status quo.