Too often, conversations about sustainable fashion are disconnected from the ones about the industry’s labor practices. A better fashion industry is not just about one small fix in the type of fabric we’re using or a new recycling program; it’s about changes throughout each stage of the clothing-making process. As many are examining how wages and climate change are interconnected, one change that could have a huge effect on fashion’s climate impact is the wage structure for garment workers.
While wages vary throughout the world, as a collective, garment workers have been historically underpaid. In areas with strict labor laws and regulations, such as the United States, workers have been paid as little as $1.58 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Bangladesh, workers were paid, on average $75 per month for full-time work. According to the Wage Indicator Foundation, the percentage gap between minimum wages and the average living wage estimate in garment-producing countries is 48.5%. This is happening because unlike many other industries, the pay structure is built on a piece rate, where workers are paid per item they construct and often have to work overtime to make up for lost wages. Between an unprecedented level of canceled orders, layoffs and lack of oversight, the pay is often unlivable. Even at a standard, legal minimum wage across the country, people still struggle with daily expenses and cost of living – due to being paid nearly half that, workers can’t feed themselves or their families, afford transportation or housing.
In Bangladesh, workers were paid, on average $75 per month for full-time work.
There are approximately 70 million garment workers worldwide – 80% of whom are women of color. Raising wages for that amount of people by even a marginal amount could potentially reduce carbon emissions This is due to a few factors. For starters, raising wages would theoretically slow down production – low wages are a key factor in the fast-fashion system of making clothing fast and cheap. It would also mean that if people are no longer able to get garments for super low prices, they may start incorporating more sustainable practices into their wardrobes, such as mending or buying secondhand.
Roland Geyer, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, wrote about this in The Business of Less. He estimates that paying $100 more to garment workers could cut 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 from the global economy due to the reverse rebound effect. “The overall idea is to persuade households to shift their spending from high-impact categories like stuff and flights to low-impact ones like services and labor in general,” Geyer tells Remake. He adds that if we increase the wages in the apparel supply chain, we would increase the labor share in the cost of clothing. “If households agreed to support this cost increase of apparel, they would not only increase the social sustainability of their garment purchases but also decrease household environmental impact, since some of their spending would be shifted to support the labor increase, i.e., would be zero impact dollars.” Put simply, the higher the labor cost, the higher the product cost, the less we buy. Brands, of course, would need to buy into this notion as well as they would not only have to participate in both a higher cost supply chain (and potentially lower margins), but they’d have to also shift sales expectations as consumer demand changes.
There are approximately 70 million garment workers worldwide – 80% of whom are women of color.
It’s not simply about production changes, though. Jason Judd, Executive Director Global Labor Institute at Cornell, explains that raising wages throughout the global supply chain is an integral piece of climate adaptation for people in areas most affected. “Policies and investments that cool factories or protect neighborhoods against intense flooding will only go so far. Apparel workers need wages that can keep pace with jumps in the cost of electricity to run fans at home and increases in food prices and medical costs as heat and flooding ramp up under almost all of the climate scenarios in S.E. Asia, South Asia, North Africa, and Central America, for example,” Judd says. “This part of the climate equation—adaptation—is missing as fashion focuses chiefly on mitigation efforts like GHG emissions, water usage, etc. These are very important, so it’s a matter of new adaptation investments and not a call to spread the effort more thinly.”
How Wages and climate change Are effecting Garment Workers
For workers, this need for climate-adaptive wages is not only a holistic solution to climate change, it’s a dire necessity for survival. In a Zoom conversation, Bangladesh-based garment worker Taniya Begum says that higher wages are an integral part of helping them adapt to the increasing temperatures and climate volatility. “[Many of us] live in a metal shade house, like a colony where 10 families live in several rooms and there is one washroom,” she says. “There are no women-friendly washrooms. There are no menstrual hygiene kits, and there is not enough ventilation [when it is hot].” She also adds that they are not able to boil their water because the cost of fuel is too high, and that’s the best way to get clean water in Bangladesh.
“Paying $100 more to garment workers could cut 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 from the global economy due to the reverse rebound effect.” – Roland Geyer
Wiranta Ginting, Deputy International Coordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, explains this need as well. “To pay a living wage to a garment worker means to value her work and pay them what they are due. Paying a living wage means that a worker can receive a wage to meet their and their family’s basic needs and afford a decent standard of living. This means that a worker can work a standard workweek (8 hours a day or 48 hours a week for a six-day workweek) with production targets that she can meet within that day,” he says. “As working hours return to normal, production will slow down – cutting down carbon emissions and generating less industrial waste. In the larger scheme of things, where the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions, paying a living wage is a sustainable model to decelerate the ecological impacts of climate change.”
“[Many of us] live in a metal shade house, like a colony where 10 families live in several rooms and there is one washroom.” – Taniya Begum
To implement a higher wage solution, the problem and the demands for change need to be clear, and importantly, they need to come from the people who understand the problems more than anyone else: the workers. According to Ginting, studies and surveys conducted by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance have highlighted that most garment workers are in a nutritional deficit because low wages mean they don’t have enough money to feed themselves and their families. With this, they advocate for a standardized living wage based on food needs. “While every country may have its own living wage figure, the minimum criteria to estimate a living wage in Asian countries can be standardized,” he notes, adding that these can be calculated by “consumption units” (1 consumption unit = 1 adult or 2 children), meaning a worker should be able to support themselves and two other consumption units. “In Asia, food costs account for nearly half of a worker’s monthly expenditure; non-food costs account for the other half. In 2020, AFWA’s surveys with workers found that the ratio of food to non-food expenses had changed to 45:55 as the costs of daily necessities had gradually increased.”
While climate adaptation and focusing on how to live with a worsening climate can feel like a step back from a solution, for garment workers, the two are one and the same. Climate change is impacting the health and safety of many people who are tasked with working in an industry that has an increasingly problematic carbon output. Higher wages could not only reduce the impact but will also help mitigate inevitable problems of extreme heat and other emergencies like flooding. Millions of workers in the garment industry deserve decent and fair pay for their work.