An Opportunity For Radical Change: Fast Fashion, Social Change And Environmental Justice

In recent years, the business model used by the fast fashion industry has come under increasing scrutiny. The term refers to the different stages involved in the manufacturing and delivery of these products, from the very quick rate of production to the almost immediate delivery of the goods and their ultimate disposal after only a few uses. According to the UK Parliament’s Fixing Fashion report, this approach has encouraged “over-consumption” and generated “excessive waste.” Given the tremendous environmental damage, fast fashion brands have received calls for reform from numerous parties, including the United Nations Environment Programme.

However, what many miss, or rather decide to ignore, are the millions of Black and brown people employed in these factories usually in the Global South with few rights, extremely low wages and a lack of security in and outside the working place. According to Labour Behind the Label, approximately 80% are women who bear the heaviest burden of the industry’s discriminatory practices from start to finish. Just like with other issues of institutional racism, the current Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the unacceptable conditions in which these workers found themselves at the advantage of multi-millionaires like Kylie Jenner and companies like Pretty Little Thing. In Bangladesh, $3 billion worth of international orders has been cancelled due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, putting half a million workers at risk of losing their jobs. This is despite many of them risking their health by being forced to work during the country’s lockdown.

Though policymakers worldwide have denounced the severe environmental impact of the fast fashion industry, they have failed to do the same for garment workers’ rights even before the pandemic. The EU has created a fund to support these groups but did not offer a long-term strategy to the issue which has been ongoing for years. The lack of public outrage has led millions of people on social media to use the hashtag #payup to demand that corporations pay garment workers in the Global South. Companies such as Nike and Tesco have agreed to pay, but many others are yet to commit.

It is important to note that Covid-19 has only uncovered injustices that have been taking place in the fast fashion industry for years. Although the response to the issue has now increased, the solutions offered are only for the immediate future. For instance, Euratex, the European Apparel and Textile Organization encouraged large retailers to honour the orders they have placed and, at the same time, consider “the long-term stability of countries like Bangladesh.” In late June, the group also presented a ‘Covid-19 recovery strategy’ for Europe’s textile and apparel industry.

The plan consists of five initiatives that try to turn the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity for innovation by putting technology and sustainability at the heart of it. Beyond Euratext, companies have joined forces and created the Policy Hub, a project pioneered by the Boston Consulting Group and supported by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry and Global Fashion Agenda. In their ‘Green New Deal’ proposal, these organizations advocate for a carbon-neutral circular economy. Given the increasing sustainability programs and commitments made by the industry in recent years, they argue that this is the perfect time to implement long-term measures for both the industry and Europe as a whole.

Approaches like these completely fail to consider the implications that a ‘green recovery’ would still have on the millions of Black and brown people in the Global South working for companies based in the Global North. Most, if not all, of the statements or proposals published in response to the crisis, don’t address the conditions and lack of basic rights that labourers undergo to ensure that people in London have the latest fashion trend at the lowest price and quickest pace possible. Although Euratex counts around 1.7 million employees, thanks to the outsourcing of supply chain factories, the organization is free to discount the people that actually manufacture many of its members’ goods.

Human trafficking, human rights abuses and health risks such as exposure to dangerous amounts of lead are among the issues faced by garment workers in many countries on a daily basis. Does Europe’s professed love for human dignity and rights not apply to people in a different geographical area? Interestingly enough, a 2018 exposé by the Financial Times revealed that garment workers in factories in Leicester, England were also being underpaid and exploited, the majority of them being migrants. The social costs of the fast fashion industry are immense and should, therefore, be considered with the same urgency given to its environmental impact. Policymakers and regulating bodies in Europe have repeatedly failed to do so and the effects of this neglect are heavily felt by those at the bottom of the supply chain.

The rise in popularity of environmental movements worldwide has led to the whitewashing of the social causes that Indigenous groups and many people in the Global South had already been vocal about since colonialism. From organizations such as Greenpeace to Greta Thunberg, the ‘acceptable’ faces of climate justice demands have usually been white people and organizations despite the many non-white activists and communities that have carried out grassroots work for decades and even centuries in the case of Indigenous lands. This has inevitably created a mainstream discourse in which tolerable demands like ‘green capitalism’ have been passively accepted by policymakers and the media as well as most of the public. However, it’s hard to envision how the cause of the problem, capitalism, can save both humans and the planet.

Capitalism’s focus on economic growth and accumulation of capital has encouraged the destruction of ecosystems and communities in the name of profit. These are also the reasons why companies and governments, despite their talks on sustainability, can never take measures that risk slowing wealth accumulation, regardless of how beneficial they might actually be for the environment. When considering all of this, it is clear that the approaches suggested by fast fashion stakeholders in Europe will continue to put Indigenous, Black and brown people at the back of the queue because they don’t require a radical change of the system.

The current health crisis, as well as the climate emergency we have been experiencing in the last 30 years both, are an opportunity for radical and inclusive change, one that gives the same importance to the environment and the most socially vulnerable. Social and environmental justice go hand in hand because the most affected by either often also suffers from the other. As the climate justice movement Wretched of the Earth wrote in an open letter to Extinction Rebellion,

Greta Thunberg calls world leaders to act by reminding them that “Our house is on fire.” For many of us, the house has been on fire for a long time: whenever the tide of ecological violence rises, our communities, especially in the Global South are always first hit. We are the first to face poor air quality, hunger, public health crises, drought, floods and displacement.

The organization, also comprised of members of Black Lives Matter UK and other anti-racism groups, publicly denounces capitalism, racism and classism among others as the root causes of the climate crisis. They argue that for the fight to be successful the movement must reflect the complex realities of everyone’s lives, and this includes garment workers in the fast fashion industry. Using green technologies to create a carbon-neutral economy, as suggested by the aforementioned Policy Hub, will not improve the living and working conditions of these workers.

Rather, what is needed is a complete rethinking of our societal and economic structures as outlined by Wretched of the Earth’s demands. We need a Green New Deal that focuses on international cooperation, peace, reparations and redistribution as well as a system that regulates and holds corporations accountable for their practices. Countries with the lowest historical and current footprints should not be asked to equally contribute to this change as the biggest inputs and adjustments need to be made by and in the Global North.

At the same time, communities worldwide must be granted the right to flourish through dignified income and housing, universal education and healthcare, affordable transportation and food, transformative justice systems, gender and sexual freedoms as well as adequate support for the elderly and disabled people. In this way, everyone can be afforded a sustainable and dignified life without jeopardizing neither their income, like in the case of garment workers nor nature.

Though it might sound Utopian for some, this transition is the only way forward for issues such as those brought about by fast fashion. Ensuring workers’ rights and dignity and safeguarding their livelihoods and environments should not be something unimaginable in 2020. Covid-19 has already shown us that what was inconceivable last year is possible today so we must act now, but our actions must be meaningful and aimed at drastically changing our ways of life.


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