Don’t let the abundance of inexpensive clothing fool you — fashion is a multi-trillion-dollar industry.
While fast fashion may have democratized trends and allowed people to regularly buy clothes no matter their budget, the division of wealth accrued by the industry is anything but democratic.
At the top of the hierarchy are billionaire founders and CEOs, while deep in their supply chains, you’ll find garment makers who can barely afford to eat. “Some of the wealthiest people in the world are fashion CEOs whose wealth has been built off the backs of millions of garment workers, who are some of the most vulnerable, undervalued and underpaid people in the world,” says Liv Simpliciano, Policy and Research Manager for Fashion Revolution. To put this wealth disparity into context, according to research from Oxfam, it would take just four days for a top fashion CEO to earn what a Bangladeshi woman would earn in her whole life.
Brands, governments and investors have all been complicit in fuelling the status quo of fashion, but the tide is turning. There is a growing sense of urgency to find solutions that help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis, and the fashion industry has begun its slow transition to more ethical practices. However, innovation accelerator Fashion For Good estimates that $20 to $30 billion must be funneled into fashion every year until 2030 in order to develop and implement truly game-changing solutions.
[I]t would take just four days for a top fashion CEO to earn what a Bangladeshi woman would earn in her whole life.
The question is: who should pay for the industry’s sustainability transformation?
Brands are Coming up short
“The responsibility of fixing the fashion industry doesn’t rest on the shoulders of any one stakeholder, but an outsized responsibility sits with those who have the most power,” says Simpliciano. “That is the major fashion brands because they’re the ones with the most profits and influence.”
Historically, fashion brands have faced little accountability to right the wrongs in their supply chains, from failing to pay workers livable wages to inflicting environmental devastation through destructive production and purchasing practices. Often, this social and environmental harm is caused thousands of miles away from a brand’s headquarters, by actors that brands don’t even know of. This puts both literal and metaphorical distance between a brand and the consequences of its actions, helping it to easily evade accountability. Industry-led initiatives to close this gap have, by and large, not been able to move the needle.
[O]nly 19% of major fashion brands disclose any investment in the decarbonization of their supply chains.
“We have had 30 years of private regulation and, with a few exceptions, the industry has managed to figure out where the minimum is and then do less than that,” says Jason Judd, Executive Director of the ILR Global Labor Institute at Cornell University. “The dream of private regulation is that firms will recognize a problem, identify solutions, implement them on a large scale and it trickles down. We know after 30 years that these things aren’t going to happen.”
According to Remake’s 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, only 19% of major fashion brands disclose any investment in the decarbonization of their supply chains, which could include investing in renewable energies or regenerative farming and helping suppliers finance improvements to facilities. “Some of the most wealthy brands say they need more financing to meet their climate targets,” says Simpliciano. “I know that switching energy from coal to electricity in your supply chain is expensive, but it’s prohibitively expensive for suppliers who have a much lower position of power, so it’s important that brands are financing that.”
But how do you force a fashion brand to take responsibility for these costs? Well, legislation like the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive would put the onus on brands to identify, stop and prevent future human rights and environmental issues in its supply chain. Failure to do so would result in fines and compensation for damage done. Our experts believe this is the only way to ensure the industry cleans up its act fast. “If you’re a regulator and you want to change behavior, you tax it,” explains Judd.
“The responsibility of fixing the fashion industry doesn’t rest on the shoulders of any one stakeholder, but an outsized responsibility sits with those who have the most power.” – Liv Simpliciano
“No one is going to overproduce clothing if they know they’ll be taxed to dispose of it,” concurs Aja Barber, author of Consumed — The Need for Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism.
Clearly, the risk of losing money and the opportunity to increase profits drives the majority of business decisions in the fashion industry. Incentives, like tying executive bonuses to the achievement of human rights and sustainability targets could encourage greater sustainability investments. Currently, it’s a nascent practice that only 26% of brands rated in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2023 are doing. “If that is so minimal, how are they incentivized to achieve [their targets]?” asks Simpliciano.
The industry needs fixing
One thing is for sure: blaming shoppers for the state of fashion or shaming them for buying from certain brands doesn’t work. We only have to look at brands like Shein, which despite one PR scandal after another became the most downloaded shopping app in the U.S. in 2021. Instead, empowering people to reconsider their shopping habits by challenging the wider system could be more impactful. “We feel powerless because we feel capitalism is screwing us over — every occupation on the planet is striking because we’re all getting a raw deal,” says Barber. “But the fight for the liberation of garment workers is a part of that. People act like our liberation is separate from theirs, but it isn’t.”
“The fashion industry can afford to do the right thing, it just hasn’t.” – Liv Simpliciano
In a time when workers all around the world are fighting for better treatment and fair pay, there’s no denying that the fashion industry must also reckon with its own imbalance of power and redistribute wealth for a more equitable future. “The fashion industry can afford to do the right thing, it just hasn’t,” says Simpliciano. “We need to interrogate the inaction and understand what kind of future they’re fighting for.”
While the responsibility shouldn’t sit with citizens to change systemic structures, consumers do have the power to shift the priorities of the fashion industry. “Individual action can lead to a cultural shift and we always neglect that part of the conversation,” says Barber. “We have a responsibility here, no matter what way you slide or dice it. People in wealthy countries are at the top of the food chain, even though we are clearly being exploited by these systems as well, just in a different way. We may not be in a factory making pennies, but we have a responsibility to care about the person who is. If the shoe was on the other foot, what would you want people to do?”