FASHION AND DEGROWTH: WHO PAYS THE WORKERS?
REAL Sustainability joined the event hosted by activist movement Extinction Rebellion (XR). The discussion was facilitated by Bel Jacobs of XR. Panel members were
Claire Farrell – Co-founder of Extinction Rebellion
Asad Rehman – Director, War on Want
Simone Cipriana – Head of Ethical Fashion Initiative
Fashion produces 100 billion garments a year for a population of 7.7 billion with production doubling since the year 2000. Most of these garments up in landfill or incinerators. Meanwhile, in a time of climate emergency, the industry contributes up to around 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Fashion desperately needs to degrow but if it does what happens to the 80 billion people currently employed in its supply chains, many of whom live and work in the world’s most vulnerable countries?
Claire talked about the urgency of shifting to a degrowth mindset. Extinction Rebellion is in a position to be able to talk about difficult topics whereas people within the corporate sector find it difficult to talk out publicly. We need labour and environmental activists to collaborate and take action.
She talked about how extraction from the global North to the global South far exceeds the aid provided to these countries. We need to be starting the conversation without necessarily knowing the answers. We must understand culturally how we can move the conversation away from domination, exploitation and separation. Claire suggests that “the people who don’t care about this stuff are actually the lunatics”. The market does not fix everyone’s problems or make things fair. Politically, people need to be empowered and liberated. We also need to expose the greenwashing prevalent in industry.
THE SOCIAL JUSTICE NGO
There are many sectors, not just fashion, facilitating extraction from the global South to consumption in the global North. Asad talked about being in the midst of a systems crisis of inequity, climate and an extraction-based logic that underpins unsustainable resource use. In a world of abundance, we have 80 percent of the world facing some degree of poverty with 50 percent of people living on the equivalent of what USD 5 buys in the U.S. and two billion people facing hunger. On every indicator the system is broken. This is all enabled by a system of exploitation with a trajectory from slavery to colonialism, imperialism and neoliberalism. We sacrifice the majority of the world’s citizens – predominantly black, brown, women – in the interest of capital accumulation in the global North.
Asad suggested that the fashion industry acts as a barometer for the multiple crises we face. He referred to the history of the fashion industry in Bangladesh. Prior to the British Raj, what is now Bangladesh was exporting its own garments and fabrics. But the British then came in and extracted an estimated 45 trillion dollars out of the region which it used to extend its empire into new colonies. Britain undertook a deliberate policy of deindustrialisation to enable the import of goods, such as clothing, from England. With the independence movements of former colonies, new development models were suggested but governments that were proponents of this, such as Allende in Chile, Lumumba in the Congo and Mossadegh in Iran, were violently overthrown through action facilitated by their previous colonial masters.
The West then used its dominant neocolonial power to impose unjust trade rules, the IMF and World Bank and imposed structural adjustment programmes to allow exploitation in return for loans. An estimated USD 16 trillion has gone in capital flow from the global South to the global North. Through exploitation of its resources, the South has effectively supported the development of the North. When Bangladesh experienced a debt crisis in 1974, it was pressured to open its economy including privatising its garment sector, which was largely nationalised at the time, and shape its economy towards export production. With its cheap labour, it was seen as a way to compete with China as a product exporter. Now around 80 percent of Bangladesh’s foreign earnings come from the garment sector and it is the second largest producer of apparel after China.
Since factories are outsourced by western brands, companies can get away with poor conditions in their supply chains. A study in Australia suggested that only 2 percent of the price of a garment goes back to the person who made it. There is an argument that we stop buying these garments. The effect of reduced demand has been demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis and we have seen it has meant garment workers being made redundant with no social protections and therefore going hungry. This alone is not the way forward.
We need to consider how reducing consumption can take place without threatening the livelihood of workers in the global South and the economies of countries. Asad talked about the growth associated with capitalism and our over-extraction of resources. The problem is the entrenched nature of capitalism. He referred to the quotation “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. However, a global poll found that there is a majority of people who believe capitalism does more harm than good.
It’s not just about driving down growth but redistribution of wealth. We need to promote a different form of economy. To have this conversation, we need to engage with the workers on the frontline of production. Important issues are a living wage and a job guarantee. We need to think about how we re-orientate through redistributing wealth, financially supporting universal basic services and investing in public goods. To finance this we need to be talking about a fair share approach including through a wealth tax, increased corporation taxes and fixing our trading system. To achieve these things we need to work collectively, particularly through labour organisations. A Just Transition cannot relate to the fossil fuel sector alone but must be something that transforms our global economy in all areas.
THE POLICY PERSPECTIVE
Simone is working with some of the most vulnerable communities in the global South. Ethical Fashion Initiative sought to be suppliers and create a supply chain centred on people and strongly respectful of the environment. The plan was to be regenerative of social and environmental capital and promote stakeholder value even among those that have a distant stake. It wanted to promote another form of value creation and shift from shareholder value.
It works in places like Mali and Afghanistan. Value must be created through fair and decent working conditions such as a living wage. Companies must invest in human capital. According to Simone, “key to the change in value for the environment is circularity”. The existing model is focused on shareholder value and we need a different path. It needs to measure not just GDP. Simone suggested that the first thing the fashion industry needs to do is publish a series of open commitments which must involve all stakeholders.
The panel discussed the requirement to create a new story in a collaborative way with reference to learning from existing thinking which has imagined a new approach such as the Lucas Plan (lucusplan.org.uk). We need to move away from our silo way of working and not be blinkered.
Asad argued that no one solution will work in all regions and all countries. In his words “we need to allow alternatives to be seeded and grow”. He believes localism is important but the concept must be linked with solidarity with those who currently are producing our goods. For example in the global North we can locally recycle but in some countries they don’t have the technology to do this. When we talk about degrowth we should be talking about better not less so that everyone has a improved standard of living.
Asad argued that neoliberalism has taken away our imagination to consider a different model. There was discussion about reframing the relationship between the global North and global South. We need to be empowering people. The Ethical Fashion Initiative’s main focus is investment in people. Simone argues that continuity is an important issue. He talked about human resilience and ingenuity based on his experiences in African countries.
The panellists talked about the impact of automation and also how we redistribute funds.
There is a huge possibility for change such that it’s now being talked about at meetings of the elite in Davos. It needs to be a multi-faceted approach including issues such as a living wage and working hours. Asad noted that it’s also interesting to note that the solutions needed to resolve the various crises that we face are intersectional.