We Need Governments To Revolutionise Fashion

by: Rosie Dalton | 1 month ago | Features

Image: student signs at the Climate Protest in Brisbane earlier this year. Image source.

Fashion and politics might seem worlds apart, but they are both hugely influential in terms of guiding societal norms. So if we hope to change fashion for the better, then governmental collaboration will be critical to success. This is something that Patagonia learned when they discovered slave labour in their supply chain, for example. Setting about addressing the issue, the brand’s VP of Public Engagement, Rick Ridgeway explained that this could never have been done without the help of local government.

“Our immediate response was that this was the kind of issue we’d be very unlikely to solve on our own. That it was the kind of issue to require multi stakeholder inclusion,” Ridgeway recalls. “In this case, we were going to have to partner with the Taiwanese government – because the factories were in Taiwan – and we were going to have to partner with the suppliers themselves, in a way that would make them feel safe about actually trying to [address] this.” After setting these changes in motion, though, Patagonia was also committed to continuing their governmental relationships over the long term. And it’s this that we need to see much more of in fashion today.

When we think about a government’s responsibility to its citizens, we often think of health, safety and education. Anti-drink-driving advertisements, sun safety pamphlets and educational campaigns are all par for the course within this domain. So why should it be any different when it comes to informing people about the risks associated with their clothes? Risks that include toxic chemical use, environmental degradation and the violation of human rights, just to name a few. Educating consumers about these sorts of issues is just the first step in helping them make more educated decisions about the clothes they buy.

But educational campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg. There is also so much more that governments could be doing in terms of mandating fair labour for garment workers and putting a cap or ban on the toxic pollution that is being generated by factories as well. Some companies like Patagonia have been pushing for these sorts of reforms over recent years and even fast fashion retailers claim to be engaging with the government in Bangladesh to raise the local minimum wage.

However mandating fair work standards goes well beyond just increasing wages. For example, it is also about implementing the systems to review those standards on an annual basis and adjust them according to increases in living costs. After months of delays, Bangladeshi authorities last year announced a new monthly minimum wage of 8,000 taka (AUD$138) for the 4.5 million workers in the garment sector in Bangladesh. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, this was problematic in a number of ways.

"Not only is the total amount far below any credible living wage estimate, it is hardly even an increase (from the current minimum wage of 5,300 taka) given inflation in the country over the past five years, and given the increases that should have already been implemented based on legal requirements," explains Ineke Zeldenrust of Clean Clothes Campaign. 

And then there is the environmental cost of the fashion industry, for which governments also need to take much greater responsibility. A robust Climate Action Policy is essential for the continuation of local ecosystems, as well as the future of local fashion, which is why these policies cannot ignore industries like fashion. We need to see governments tackling the issue of sustainability, which is why it is so disappointing to witness the coalition's lacklustre approach to Climate Action.

Our planet is in dire trouble right now and, as an industry known for generating vast amounts of toxic runoff, carbon emissions and air pollution, fashion cannot be left out of this picture. Which is why global governments need to be regulating garment factories when it comes to their environmental impact. Or at very least incentivising these businesses to do better. Because as long as they are allowed to coast along unchallenged, things will never really improve. 

To be fair, we have seen some governments step up to the plate over recent months. We saw this in action last year, when the British government launched an investigation into the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry, spearheaded by the UK’s parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee. And, even more recently, when Kering was tapped by French president Emmanuel Macron to unite brands behind sustainability goals. But these instances are far too few. And I would argue that, by taking a three-pronged approach – one involving public education, fair work mandates and the introduction of environmental incentives – governments could ultimately help change fashion for the better.

After Patagonia cofounded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in 2010, for instance – a coalition that helps fashion businesses measure their environmental and social labour impact – they found it incredibly difficult to convert certain businesses unless their hands were forced by governmental intervention. “As something like this grows, it gets increasingly difficult to get the second half in, because they are already the people that don’t give a shit,” Rick Ridgeway says. “It gets harder and harder to bring them in, unless the government orders them to. So that’s kind of like our ultimate play – we want government to take over this whole thing, because the end game has to be government and policy.”

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