Before Celebrating Environmentally Sustainable Clothes, We First Need To Ask Who Made Them

by: Maggie Zhou | 1 month ago | Features

Image: via Well Made Clothes.

There is a part of us all that relishes the feel-good buzz we get after doing something environmentally friendly. You might get it when you remember your reusable cup, compost your waste, or hit up your local bulk food store. So, when fast fashion brands introduce so-called sustainable ranges, it is understandable why consumers jump on board with these affordable, trendy clothes that also have a green label slapped onto them. Or so it appears. While this might seem like a guilt-free alternative, the reality isn’t all sunshine and roses.

Greenwashing has become an unfortunately firm fixture in fast fashion marketing. It can come in the form of exaggerations, vague claims, or distraction techniques that make a brand seem more green than it actually is. At the end of the day, though, these tokenistic gestures do little to improve a business’ overall impact.

You have probably noticed the recent influx of sustainable initiatives launched by fast fashion brands, both here and overseas. Usually marketed under ambiguous umbrella terms like ‘conscious collection’ or ‘sustainable range,’ these small collections are released by brands as a way of proving that they care about the environment. Say, through the use of recycled plastic bottles or organic cotton. But they are just a minute aspect of the company’s overall business.

Which calls us to question: is any progress actually good progress? Should we be championing any and all efforts of sustainability? Or is this actually just hindering the sustainability movement overall?

Most of the time, these so-called ‘conscious collections’ are surface level only. The ‘sustainable’ options make up a tiny portion of the brand’s overall offering and, more often than not, disregard the production and ethics behind the garments altogether.

In a survey conducted on my Instagram page, I asked whether worker rights, conditions and wages, or sustainable fabrics were more important to my followers. Out of 1295 respondents, 993 people answered worker concerns.

After the devastating Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 killed over 1100 garment workers, global outrage rightfully ensued. And during this year’s global pandemic, Bangladesh was reportedly hit by roughly $4.7 billion in cancelled orders, leaving thousands without pay or without jobs.

The simple fact is that we can’t have sustainability without social sustainability. The health and livelihood of garment workers is important, simply because lives are important.

Mostafiz Uddin, a sustainability leader in Bangladesh’s denim and garment space, talks about the importance of recognising the full breadth of sustainability.

“We talk about sustainability. My friend, sustainability [doesn’t just mean] environment, climate, water,” he says. “Sustainability also means the humans; sustainability means the people who are producing for you. You may be sitting in the Western world; we are sitting in this part of the world, but we also deserve the same equal and fair treatment.”

To me, the choice is simple. How can I compare the worth of a garment worker’s life to a flimsy polyester T-shirt that, on average, is only worn seven times before it is thrown out?

Fortunately, there are many brands now making positive changes and many ways that we can crosscheck the human rights of a brand. To meet Well Made Clothes’ Fair value, for example, minimum wages, safe working conditions, voluntary overtime, and freedom of association must first be met by the brand.

Various organisations are now pushing towards a living wage too – stating that minimum wages aren’t enough to ensure a decent standard of living for a worker and their family. A living wage should cover the essentials of food, water, shelter, education, health care, transportation, clothing and savings for unexpected events.

Fashion Checker makes it easy to check up on global brands and see where they sit when it comes to the payment of living wages. While Fair Wear is a certification that ensures the payment of living wages, among other fair labour practices. And, while Fairtrade acknowledges that the payment of living wages may take time to implement (especially within large supply chains), they champion progress towards living wages through explicit requirements and incremental steps, solidified by timelines.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this year fuelling some much-needed discourse around race rights, it is also worth noting that these conversations need to be much more prevalent in our conversations around fashion industry supply chains as well. Because the global garment industry is made up of millions of people, the majority of which comprises female and BIPOC garment workers.

As Mahatma Gandi once said, “there is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” And we cannot embrace environmentally friendly measures if they neglect the fundamental necessities of human rights. So, before we celebrate clothes that appear, on surface level, to be environmentally friendly, we first need to ask who made them – and under what conditions.

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