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Fixing Fashion: Who Is Doing What?

The negative social and environmental impacts of the globalised fashion industry first came to public awareness in the 1990s – for example, through campaigns against sportswear companies for use of child labour. Since then, there have been a number of responses from the industry, from governments, from international institutions and from non-governmental organisations and trade unions. 

Currently there are more than 100 of these institutional responses. This piece considers only those that:

  • a. have global reach – these resources may work across countries or they may be globally influential in the fashion space;
  • b. are primarily or solely focused on addressing social and/or environmental issues within the fashion industry.

The piece does not include individual NGOs or consultancies working in the sector; individual tools; national-level responses or legislatio whether global or national. National responses may, however, be linked to a global-level organisation – for example, national trade unions affiliated to the global union IndustriALL, or national campaigns on workers’ rights as members of the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Many of these responses have involved collaboration between different actors or stakeholders – so-called ‘multi-stakeholder’ initiatives.  

Fashion is a huge, complex industry. The apparel retail market is worth $1.34 trillion. Its supply chains are long and varied, encompassing farming and manufacturing on both large and cottage-industry scales. Its impacts are considerable – both environmental (if fashion were a country it would be the fourth largest emitter of CO2) and social (14 million garment workers earn less than half a living wage). ‘The mammoth scale of the current fashion industry could deter people from trying to improve things – but thankfully many are determined to do fashion better.

While these attempts to fix fashion are to be applauded, they do beg several questions: 

  • 1. Even with this many initiatives, certifications and activism, is there enough of a response to fashion’s impact on the planet?
  • 2. Are current actions really making enough positive difference to the people working in the industry?
  • 3. Is the response too fragmented? Is more harmonisation needed across the many separate organisations?
  • 4. What role could governments and international institutions play to provide more effective control of the industry?

What types of action are there?

1. Certification bodies and standards 

These establish transparent standards of practice within the supply chain against which businesses demonstrate compliance and are verified by independent third party auditors. For example, the Fairtrade Cotton Standard.

For more information on the various standards and certifications see also A Guide to Environmental & Social Compliance Textile Standards & Legislation and the ITC Standards Map.

2. Initiatives 

These may be “multi-stakeholder” coalitions of businesses, workers through trade unions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments, for example, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. 

Or they may be single stakeholder initiatives led either by industry or NGOs. These often perform the role of a think tank or technical advisory to businesses, and may develop best practice guidelines.  

Or they provide a specific service for a specific issue in the supply chain. For example, the World Fair Trade Organisation runs a marketing and technical support network for (often) small-scale artisanal cooperatives around the world.

3. Campaigns 

Organisations implementing political-type strategies to lobby companies or governments to address specific problems in their supply chain. These are usually implemented via targeted campaigns. For example, Fashion Revolution.

4. Worker organisations 

These are most commonly in the form of trade unions where workers formally join together to protect their rights and bargain collectively. Local branches are part of national organisations that are affiliated to the global trade union.

Key observations

1. Standards dominate the global actions 

There are 38 certified standards that cover a diversity of topics including cotton prices, farmer welfare, child labour, forced labour, organic production, working conditions, chemical use, and so on.

Garments produced in certified factories (whether or not they carry a consumer-facing kite mark) account currently for a small percentage of the market. However despite this, these standards serve as practical working examples of how fashion production can have a positive rather than negative impact on people and/or planet. Moreover, the standards provide brands and producers with concrete actions and a proven pathway for getting there. 

While there has been criticism around the impact of initiatives, the thoroughness of standards and the robustness of certification, they do play a role in shifting the conversation from what the industry should be doing to how fast it can get there. 

2. Trade unions 

Trade unions operate at both national and international levels. There is one global union that covers textile and garment workers – the global union federation IndustriALL – although there are hundreds of national-level unions. Workers organising together to stand up for their rights under law form the backbone of attempts to improve labour conditions. Despite this, the percentage of workers in the fashion industry who are members of trade unions is very low, according to IndustriALL. Adding complexity to this picture is China, which dominates many aspects of fashion but which has no free and independent trade unions as all trade unions must by law belong to the government trade union federation.

3. Support organisations exist for almost every issue

There are a large number of organisations, initiatives and NGOs that have been established to support business through the sustainability journey or provide research to show where improvements are needed.

Many of these include developing practical tools to guide businesses on how to implement specific actions. However, these tools and action programmes are not the same as standards in that they are not independently verified against an external set of criteria. Instead, they provide the critical role of showing businesses how to do something – whether it is calculating emissions or the impact of a garment, calculating living wages or implementing safety programmes, or sharing experiences and knowledge. These resources also help to frame the conversation around sustainable fashion and participation. 

4. Consumers receive relatively little attention from globally organised campaigns 

Initiatives or campaigns with global reach that are aimed at fashion consumers are relatively scarce compared to initiatives aimed at business. However, as with trade unions, some of the global campaigns (Clean Clothes CampaignFashion Revolution) operate through a network of local campaigns. 

As life cycle assessments of garments show, the post-consumer usage of fashion items plays a key role in limiting the industry’s eventual impact on the planet. Consumer pressure on brands to improve working conditions and environmental footprints has also been shown to be pivotal in the past. Both these considerations suggest that consumers would be receptive to more campaigns targeting their role in fixing fashion.

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