This article was originally published in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report. To read other opinion pieces, exclusive editorials, and detailed profiles and interviews with key vendors, download the full Sustainability Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.

Key Takeaways:

  • The fashion industry often seems to value environmental metrics more than the well-being of garment workers in its sustainability strategies, leading to worker rights and fair compensation remaining comparatively static.
  • Questions continue to circle around whether humanitarian action is inherently more difficult than environmental action, or whether it’s simply more difficult to communicate, leading to a lack of consumer visibility.
  • New legislation is likely to have a near and longer-term impact, but a combination of consumer activism and well-established frameworks, case studies, and standards should be the keys that convince fashion brands and shoppers to place equal importance on people and planet.

The fashion industry has a complicated relationship with the people who make its clothes. On one hand, the fashion machine relies on its people power — it would grind to a halt without the millions of garment makers around the world who produce billions of garments every year. On the other hand, the industry, on average, forces these people into precarious, unfair and unsafe working conditions. 

When it comes to the industry’s approach to sustainability, it’s not hard to find examples of fashion favouring the ‘E’ in Environmental and Social Governance. Take for example The Fashion Pact, one of the industry’s biggest initiatives, which sees 160 major brands collaborating to tackle what the body identifies as the biggest issues facing fashion: climate, biodiversity and oceans. Garment workers do not merit a mention.

Or take a look in your closet. The swing tags of our clothes will tell you the fabric composition, country of origin and eco certifications, but you won’t find the names of those who made your clothes. The picture is little better at the enterprise consulting level: in the Business of Fashion & McKinsey’s State of Fashion Report 2023, garment workers are mentioned just once. 

A particularly pronounced example of this disparity: in response to the Notre Dame fire in April 2019, LVMH pledged €200 million to restore the cathedral. In the same year, Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index (FTI) reported that no LVMH-owned brands scored above 22% for overall transparency – a metric that includes disclosure of worker protections and compensation. 

Wherever you look, it’s apparent that the industry systemically devalues its garment workers in sustainability strategies, placing the emphasis, instead, squarely on the environment. But why is this? 

Unpacking the industry’s inaction on worker rights

Garment workers around the world face mounting challenges, from crippling poverty deepened by the pandemic and cost of living crisis, to extreme heat and flooding caused by the rapidly escalating climate crisis. On this basis alone, it is difficult – if not impossible – to separate environmental and social action. The two are intertwined.

In 2022, for example, 67% of garment workers in Cambodia alone said they were already experiencing the impacts of global warming, according to the Solidarity Centre. 

And in an industry thought to be worth at least $1.7 trillion, only 1% of the world’s 250 biggest brands disclose the number of workers in their supply chains who earn a living wage. To put that into perspective, in the sale of a €29 t-shirt, the Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that just €0.80 goes to the garment maker. For fashion’s supply chain workers, environmental and economic precarity go hand-in-hand.

So while the industry has leaned heavily on carbon emission reductions, ocean plastic recycling, and circularity as the key metrics by which it wants its ESG / CSR efforts to be judged, the reality is that fashion must start to approach sustainability more holistically, with both people and planet in mind.

“It’s hard to swallow when you see the word sustainability interpreted by brands as solely meaning green sustainability as if you can divorce environmental issues from human rights issues,” says Thulsi Narayanasamy, Director of International Advocacy at the Worker Rights Consortium. “[Brands] are taking advantage of people having an understanding of the urgency of environmental and climate issues and using that as a way to cynically distract from the fact that they are ultimately responsible for the labour abuses that take place in their supply chain too. The system of corporate power that drives climate change is the same system that drives human rights abuses in factories.”

From a purely commercial perspective, though, fashion’s heavy emphasis on climate action (and its de-emphasis on humanitarian efforts) makes a cold kind of sense. Without much social progress to actually report on, is it any wonder that brands spotlight the environment over workers? Perhaps environmental claims are easier for consumers to digest (especially if they’re cloaked in reports filled with confusing data and indecipherable graphs) and more compelling for shareholders to measure.

But even this accounting for the disparity between environmental and social commitments breaks down on closer inspection. In Remake’s Fashion Accountability Report 2022, only three of 58 major brands published a science-based emissions reduction strategy and actually demonstrated emissions reduction, while many increased emissions. So while climate action might look good on paper, the data behind the graphs can be patchy at best.

On the other hand, if you ask a brand whether it pays its workers a living wage, adjusted for the cost of living in their location, the answer is yes or no. That data would make for a rather concise report, and one that consumers and investors would likely respond less favourably to. 

But does this mean, in practice, that environmental action is just plain easier than humanitarian action? Or is it simply easier to talk about?

“The industry is quite keen to show it’s trying to grapple with the environmental issues, but as for people making the clothes, that is kept out of view,” explains Ruth Ogier, Senior Programmes Officer at anti-poverty charity War on Want, which recently released the report Fashioning the Future. “I don’t think either [problem] is harder or easier to solve. They are simultaneously the same thing. You can’t actually address the environmental harm that the industry does without addressing the human rights and justice aspects.”

So why does it seem near impossible for brands to make any kind of genuine commitment to worker compensation and protection? Narayanasamy believes that some brands perpetuate the idea that enabling workers’ rights to organise, paying living wages, and ensuring safe working conditions are outside of their control. “They lean into this idea that they believe it should be better but it’s just ‘so hard’,” she says. “It’s highly effective and I understand if consumers completely believe that. But if brands wanted to improve working conditions in factories tomorrow, they could fix everything. Garment workers aren’t accidently living in poverty, if brands chose to pay suppliers more and for that money to be ringfenced for wage payments, they could, they choose not to because they can get away with it.” 

Why don’t shoppers seem to care?

It’s important to consider where the drive for change will come from. Over time, consumer awareness of environmental issues has influenced brand action. Will the same happen around the treatment of garment workers? Where do shoppers stand on the issue? 

Today, many might not even realise the human involvement in fashion production. “I don’t think people even comprehend that clothing is not just made by robots in factories,” says fashion psychologist Dr Dion Terrelonge. “How many hands touched that clothing? The people who had designed it, the people who had stitched those hems, the people who had put on those sleeves. Somebody did that with their hands.”

If these shoppers aren’t aware that people make their clothes, they certainly wouldn’t suspect that forced or unfair labour was involved. If they do have that awareness, they are likely to assume that governments and NGOs are already working together to ensure that baseline standards of living, and essential worker rights, are enforced and protected. “We live in a country where we presume if somebody’s doing something and they’re allowed to do it, what they’re doing must be lawful or ethical,” says Terrelonge, who is based in the UK. “Surely somebody would say something about that.”

For those who do have an inkling of the fact that other human beings are being exploited at the heart of the fashion supply chain, is it a lack of empathy that keeps us buying more, despite knowing the human cost? “Whether consciously or unconsciously, if you consider the human impact of all of your buying and the role that you’re playing in that, it’s very confronting,” says Terrelonge. “The moment you confront that, it means you have to do something differently.” 

Perhaps these shoppers just aren’t ready to acknowledge the inconvenient truth behind their consumption habits. Or, like the brands themselves, they assume their ability to influence what they see as broad, global forces is limited.

In July, journalist Sophie Benson reported on a number of TikTok videos that showed fast-fashion shoppers joking about child labour. While this seems to be an isolated example of extreme callousness, it does speak to a wider sense of apathy that shoppers may feel toward the people who make clothing. That child labour could be seen as part-and-parcel of shopping fast fashion is a disturbing attitude that needs redressing, but the same is also true for the wider sense of wilful ignorance that persists in the fashion-buying public. Deep down, most people have at least some intuition that for clothing to remain cheap, someone else must be paying the price. They just choose not to think about it, because it’s a deeply uncomfortable thing to consider, and because the lives of garment workers likely feel incredibly distant from their own.

The majority of the world’s garment production happens in countries like China, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam — a world away from the stores where we get our fashion fix — by people whose lives and experiences we can’t even imagine. This literal distance begets emotional distance, deepening a sense of othering between ‘us’ and ‘them’. “When we see people who are part of our in-group, we’re able to see the humanity, their nuances and individuality,” says Terrelonge.

“Whereas people who we see as being in the out-group, who are different to us, we homogenise them.” 

This isn’t to paint all shoppers with the same brush. Citizen-led advocacy groups like Fashion Revolution, Fashion Act Now and Remake, which has almost 1,500 ambassadors around the world, have been pivotal in raising awareness of injustices in fashion on social media, protests, campaigns, petitions and fundraising events. The activism of Remake ambassadors has resulted in the expansion of the Accord, created in response to the Rana Plaza factory disaster of 2013, into Pakistan as well as recouping $22 billion in stolen wages through the #PayUp campaign. Fashion Revolution’s Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign petitioned to have living wage legislation enshrined in EU law. It was run by the European Citizens’ Initiative — a mechanism that enables citizens to directly petition the European Commission on relevant legislation. 

Whose responsibility is the wellbeing of garment workers?

Sure, it would be great if more shoppers understood and cared about garment workers, but is consumer awareness really the answer? We know that citizen advocacy does have the power to incite change but this is often driven by small, dedicated groups. War On Want encourages us to think ambitiously about the world we want. “It’s a shift in us as citizens to actually start having more radical hopes, expectations and demands of our political leaders about a different world,” says Ogier. “We want economies fixed around very different principles.”

That’s a bold aim, but how will it manifest itself in the relationship between shoppers and brands? It’s practically impossible for consumers to know the supply chain of every product they buy, especially in the current patchwork structure of sustainability targets, commitments, and standards. After all, you can’t tell if a garment worker has been paid fairly by the price tag on a garment, and buying more expensive products doesn’t automatically mean the worker was paid more. 

Like the rest of the ESG spectrum, industry figures believe the root of the problem lies in fashion’s legacy of ineffective self-regulation, and that the solution, as a result, rests with legislators.  “You should be able to go and buy something in a shop and know that it hasn’t contributed to an environmental disaster or to the exploitation of workers,” says Narayanasamy. “The failure of that ultimately lies with the state and its failure to regulate companies.”

International, legally binding regulations are almost certainly going to be needed to force the industry’s hand. Just as fashion’s discussions around its environmental footprint have picked up pace as a direct result of legislation and the looming threat of punitive enforcement in the EU and elsewhere, the same accelerating effect will be needed to galvanise the industry into action.

The Accord, for example, has undoubtedly helped to create a safer garment industry in Bangladesh. But the industry shouldn’t wait until another devastating industrial disaster to bring about urgently needed regulations like it. “The Accord has been incredibly effective on improving a specific issue, applicable to a specific location, but it has taken a huge amount of work to get it renewed and to get brands to sign on,” says Narayanasamy. “Ideally, you would have regulation at the public level which would mean the scope and scale wouldn’t be limited and that there would be strong liability provisions to punish companies when they abused rights. If these issues are largely systemic, which is what I believe, then you need to change it at the systems level.”

In 2021, The Garment Worker Protection Act passed into Californian law, guaranteeing a minimum wage for workers in Los Angeles. However, because this law is specific to LA, by early 2023 many brands had simply abandoned the city to find cheaper labour elsewhere. It goes to show that if living wages were a universal standard around the world, brands wouldn’t be able to “chase the cheap needle around the planet” in search of the most competitive prices—something that has quietly become synonymous with a lot of fashion industry sourcing practices, which lift and shift based on changing labour rates and regulations. 

Promisingly, the European Union has proposed the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive which would hold brands accountable for human rights violations in their supply chains. “Legislation does play a role, particularly if you have to be transparent about your supply chain, if you have to show that you’ve conducted and met certain standards, and if you are held responsible for all of the workers’ rights,” says Ogier. While legislation can take years to become law and then be implemented, punitive measures like fines and taxes hit brands where it hurts: their wallets. 

And if we stick to thinking about the commercial impact of worker rights, there is also the other side of the coin to consider. Research shows that investing in garment workers is actually good for business. A 2022 report by Business Fights Poverty and the University of Cambridge shows that by paying living wages, businesses see higher worker retention and productivity, more resilient supply chains and significant reputational wins. According to environmental scientist Roland Geyer, whose book The Business of Less: The Role of Companies and Businesses on a Planet in Peril was published in 2021, paying garment workers $100 extra per week would also remove 65 million metric tons of carbon from the global economy. It’s a win-win — helping brands to make progress on their environmental commitments and lifting millions out of poverty simultaneously. 

So how do you actually achieve this? In 2017, the Global Living Wage Coalition released a manual on setting living wages, and in 2020, Wage Forward developed a proposal specifically for the garment industry. While being forced to close during the pandemic, the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic is an example of a unionised factory that paid living wages to its workers — 2.5 times more than other factories in the country.  

The strategies, case studies and regulatory frameworks exist. The business incentives and risks are clear. The regulatory environment is evolving—probably more quickly than many brands recognise. And consumer awareness will evolve with it.

All of this combines to create a very firm mandate for elevating people to the same level of the planet in fashion’s sustainability strategies. Establishing fair and safe working conditions and living wages for garment workers around the world will reduce poverty, redistribute wealth, help achieve decarbonisation commitments, and lead to an industry that doesn’t centre profit above all else. 

We should all want to wear clothes that aren’t the result of suffering. But whether brands and shoppers are convinced by this shouldn’t really matter in the end — why leave something as vital as human rights in the hands of the private sector?