We reported on the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh when it happened back in 2013. I was one of those fashion activists who was not only saddened by the tragedy but angry too. Angry that reports of cracks in the building went unheeded. Angry that people were compelled to work, in an unsafe building, to fulfil production orders. Angry that 1,134 people died. Angry that a further 2,500 were injured. Angry with a fashion culture and industry that allowed these things to happen. Angry that not enough people cared. Angry that people continue to purchase unethical fashion. Angry that people – consumers, designers, fashion employees, bloggers, buyers, suppliers, advertisers, stylists, retailers – still participate in a fashion system that perpetuates these injustices over and over.
The biggest event in our sustainable fashion calendar has come and gone, Fashion Revolution Week, and on April 24 we commemorated the tragedy’s fifth anniversary. Am I still angry? Not anymore. Rather than focus on the problems, I’ve chosen to focus on solutions. You could say Eco Warrior Princess is one of those solutions.
So five years since the Rana Plaza tragedy has anything changed? Let’s take a closer look at the key issues plaguing the global fashion industry and see how we’re tracking…
1. Child labour
According to the International Labour Office (ILO) there are roughly 152 million children aged 5 to 17 engaged in child labour, roughly 64 million girls and 88 million boys. That’s almost one-in-ten children around the world.
Here are the stats on child labour:
- 72.1 million are in Africa
- 62 million are in Asia and the Pacific
- 10.7 million located in the America’s,
- 5.5 million are in Europe and Central Asia
- 1.2 million in the Arab States
One-third of children aged 5 to 14 who are engaged in child labour don’t actually go to school and two-thirds of those aged 15 to 17 work more than 43 hours per week. Most child labour takes place within the family unit. The organisation found that:
“More than two-thirds of all children in child labour work as contributing family labourers… Child labour is not exacted only by employers, and children do not have to be in an employment relationship with a third-party employer to be in child labour and to suffer its consequences… most children in child labour work on family farms and in family enterprises.”
These issues and these statistics are shocking but they’re not exactly new (Nike’s use of child labour in the 90s springs to mind, as does seeing kids as young as five work in their family businesses whilst travelling through Asia). Underlying many of the social justices issues is poverty. Having little money explains why families over-rely on the labour of their children and why the choice of sending kids to school is made harder.
The use of child labour is actually on a downward trend which is great news. In the ILO report “Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and Trends, 2012-2016” it reads:
“Child labour declined during the period from 2012 to 2016, continuing a trend seen since the publication of the ILO’s first global estimates of child labour in 2000. The 16-year period starting in 2000 saw a net reduction of 94 million in children in child labour. The number of children in hazardous work fell by more than half over the same period. There were almost 134 million fewer children in employment in 2016 than in 2000. Real advances have been made in the fight against child labour, providing an important foundation for efforts moving forward.”
Now just to note, this is 2016 data so we can’t be absolutely certain that the trend continued in 2017, so until more information comes to light, let’s continue to apply global pressure as one child engaged in child labour is still one child too many! Want to join the fight to end child labour? This post shares some great tips on what actions you can take.
(Note: The skeptic in me knows it is unlikely we will eradicate all child labour as the issue stems from poverty, a social issue that has never been solved and has plagued humanity for centuries).
2. Environmental impacts of fashion
It’s often quoted on the interwebs that “fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil” but this ‘fact’ published on EcoWatch is completely false. It isn’t linked to any science-based evidence that I could find.
Now the environmental impacts of fashion are hard to measure because the sector cuts across so many different industries: agriculture, textiles, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, transportation and energy.
While we’re still waiting for definitive research to be published on fashion’s global eco-footprint, we can still glean some data from the following sources:
- Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group’s 2017 report “Pulse of the Fashion Industry”
- ClimateWorks 2018 report “Measuring Fashion: Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study”
- Greenpeace 2017 report “Fashion at the Crossroads”
Here’s how the fashion industry is currently performing when it comes to environmental impact and what we can expect trend-wise:
Greenhouse gas emissions
The Measuring Fashion 2018 report is one of the most comprehensive science-backed studies I could find about the industry. It focusses on fashion’s carbon footprint and estimates that the global apparel and footwear industry accounts for eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – four metric gigatonnes of CO2 – making it the fourth or fifth most polluting industry depending on the set of data you compare it with. More than 50 percent of the emissions come from three phases according to the report: dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%).
The report noted that there was a 35 percent increase in emissions between 2005 and 2016 and this increasing trend is set to continue with global population projected to hit 8.5 billion by 2030 and if all else remained constant (no changes to current consumption and production methods).
“In a business-as-usual scenario, apparel’s climate impact is expected to increase by 49% – equal to today’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.” – Measuring Fashion 2018 press release.
According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, the volume of water consumed by the global fashion industry is 79 billion cubic meters which it states is enough to fill about 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Surprisingly, the report also suggests “replacing 30 percent of 2030 cotton with polyester” because “it saves 22.6 bn m³ water”, but this short-sighted recommendation dismisses microplastic pollution and should only be considered in the short term (if it is to be considered at all!). In the longer-term, the use of these fabrics should be phased out entirely and brands should consider using natural and biodegradable fabrics only (although as I write this, I can see how much of a pipe dream this is).
While there are biotechnology textile innovations currently being produced to tackle environmental problems such as water scarcity, the trends don’t look good. Researchers anticipate water usage will increase by 50 percent by 2030 as cotton-producers are located in countries such as China and India that are already suffering from water stress.
The fashion industry releases toxic chemicals and microplastic pollution into the environment through the use of synthetic pesticides at the growing of cotton stage, and synthetic dyes, solvents and manufacture of petroleum-derived fibres and other synthetic fabrics. These pollute rivers and oceans particularly. The industry also relies heavily on fossil fuels to manufacture fabrics and to operate production facilities, which further contributes to climate change.
Although there are calls for circular fashion, the forecast looks rather bleak. The demand for synthetic fibres is expected to continue despite the environmental problems associated with these types of fibres and those made from petrochemical polymers such as polyester. According to Global Market Insights, the demand for synthetic fibres is driven by commercial and residential needs such as robust and durable home textiles, carpeting and rugs, and the apparel industry’s need for cheap, wrinkle-free and stain-resistant garments.
There is no reliable compiled data on the amount of fashion waste tossed out globally, however, we can focus on data sets for individual countries. According to the EPA, Americans toss 14 million tonnes of textiles out each year, double the amount they did 20 years ago. Greenpeace reports that the UK disposes of 350,000 tonnes of clothing in landfills every year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows Australians dispose of 500,000 tonnes of leather and textile waste.
Since sales of clothing have nearly doubled from one trillion dollars in 2002 to 1.8 trillion dollars in 2015, and clothing sales are projected to rise to $2.1 trillion by 2025, a corresponding increase in textile waste is expected. Industry is trying to find ways to solve this problem by focussing on solutions such as textile recycling, however, recycling infrastructure is difficult to roll out and recycling itself is a band-aid solution. The real solution lies in slowing down the rate of consumption at the customer level. If purchasing continues at current levels, textile and clothing waste will just continue.
“The average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago.” – Greenpeace, Fashion at the Crossroads
Related Post: We Can’t Recycle Our Way to ‘Zero Waste’
3. Fair Trade
Cotton is one of the most commonly used fibres in the fashion industry yet the 100 million rural households and approximately 300 million people who produce it are still living in poverty.
Fair Trade exists to help change this. “Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world,” it reads on the Fairtrade Foundation website. It continues: “Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their lot and have more control over their lives.”
Put simply, the point of fair trade is to ensure benefits of trade are shared fairly (duh) and that trade results in a fairer deal for everyone. In the fashion industry, this means that the cotton farmers and producers are paid a fair price to cover the cost of production and operations. For workers, a fair wage means that they are able to cover basic costs of food, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare. The Fairtrade organisation sets a guaranteed Fairtrade Minimum Price for goods so that farmers know the price they will receive for their cotton, safeguarding them from price fluctuations in the market. The organisation also sets a Fairtrade Premium price which, when received by the producer, is typically reinvested back into the business or community projects.
The organisation also works with small-scale cotton farmers to help them negotiate better and offers support to help them build stronger businesses by helping them implement sustainable agricultural practices as well as cultivating certified organic cotton which will fetch an even higher price in the market.
“Fairtrade has a long history of challenging the mainstream clothing industry in response to poor working conditions and the violation of human rights in developing countries. Better social conditions often lead to safer workplaces and more sustainable production patterns even if ecological requirements are not always at the core of Fairtrade practices. Today, environmental concerns are increasingly tackled by Fairtrade businesses.” – Greenpeace report, Fashion at the Crossroads
In 2009, Fairtrade International in partnership with the World Fair Trade Organization adopted the ‘Charter of Fair Trade Principles’, to provide a uniform global definition of Fair Trade and outline its core principles. The 10 key Fair Trade principles are listed in the graphic below:
These are the key areas that Fair Trade looks to tackle.
According to Fair Trade UK more than 1.6 million currently people benefit from Fairtrade (could not isolate statistical data for the fashion industry), and this number is set to grow as more consumers demand ethical and sustainably-produced products.
The million dollar question is whether Fair Trade really works to make the global fashion industry more just and like many frameworks which have a tendency to oversimplify problems, there are of course limitations with Fair Trade. Despite these concerns, Fair Trade certifications still offer producers, consumers, suppliers and businesses some guidance on acceptable and fair trade deals in the fashion industry. Although much work still needs to be done to improve the model so that it is indeed ‘fair’, particularly as more ‘big’ fashion players enter the market, other better alternatives to the system are yet to exist.
Five years since the Rana Plaza building collapse and clearly we’ve still got a long way to go. While there are some positive signs, many of the trends are also discouraging. What brings comfort is knowing that the future hasn’t happened yet and we can change its course.
There is also cause for optimism as this year was the biggest Fashion Revolution week yet, a sign that more people are awakening to the toxic nature of unethical and fast fashion. Thousands of people across the world got involved on social media asking the brands they love #whomademyclothes. By continuing to demand transparency from the brands we purchase from, advocating for human rights and environmental practices, shopping with responsible and sustainability-focused labels and boycotting brands if need be, we can build a more promising fashion future.
Voting with our wallet sets the economic wheels in motion (and consuming less doesn’t, but it’s necessary also!) but our voices and posts on social media make it hard for fashion brands to ignore us. Let’s use the power of both to create a more equitable and sustainable fashion industry.
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Title image of Rana Plaza building which collapsed at Savar, near Dhaka Bangladesh on April 24, 2013 photo credit: Sk Hasan Ali / Shutterstock.com