Why our current level of clothing consumption is unsustainable?

Catastrophic. That is the word used to describe the current trajectory of the fashion industry. If annual clothing sales continue to grow at the current rate, they will reach 160 million tonnes by 2050 – more than three times the volume we are producing today. In order to make these millions more items of clothing, most of which will be surplus to requirements, we will use 300 million tonnes of non-renewable materials that the Earth simply doesn’t have the resources to produce.

How consumption patterns have changed over time

We are buying more and wearing it less. In the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled and the number of times we wear those clothes is decreasing .

We’ve all seen the stories of the Instagram ‘influencers’ who wear an item once for a single post and then leave it in the back of their wardrobe, or worse, simply throw it in the trash. We are now producing around 150 billion items of clothing per year and we’re throwing away into landfill or incinerating a garbage truck full of clothes every minute. 

Often, the reason given to justify the growth in production is that demand is increasing, particularly in emerging markets including Africa and China. The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 – an increase of 2.4 billion people between now and then [3].

Even with current levels of population growth, the rate at which production is set to grow does not make sense. Business as usual is not an option.

“The processes by which industrial society has increased humanity’s material well-being have produced well-documented side effects, from environmental degradation to social disruption to vast income inequality. Less attention has been given to another unfortunate consequence: the degradation of the quality and conditions of human labor. “

Ultimately, countering these trends and guaranteeing meaningful work for all depends on a broader societal transition rooted in the embrace of post-materialist values.


Positive psychologists have shown that the business-as-usual approach of increasing material wealth while ignoring human needs leads to increased selfishness, social conflict, and despair. 

Reinvigorating craftsmanship and care, in both ethos and practice, is a vital step toward valuing the earth for its own sake and for the sake of future generations. Craft is about care. A truly human society would be based upon care—for the planet, for the objects of our labor, and for each other.


We heard some concern that social media was driving faster fashion and encouraging over consumption and waste. Research by the Hubbub Foundation suggested that 17% of young people questioned said they wouldn’t wear an outfit again if it had been on Instagram.22 Online fashion companies have established relationships with online ‘influencers’ who advertise the latest fast fashion by modelling it on their Instagram and other social media feeds. Professor Tim Cooper from the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University argues garments should be designed and manufactured for longevity, but that a more difficult problem is how to reduce consumer demand for cheap, short-lived garments.

He said: Sustainable consumption demands cultural change. The throwaway culture applies to the whole economy, not merely the clothing sector. If consumers are to be encouraged to buy fewer clothes there needs to be a wider public debate on [the] future of the ‘consumer society’, including an evaluation of its benefits and costs.


COVID is no excuse to back off from sustainability. Moreover, sustainability will be among key product priorities, together with quality and durability.” Luis Casacuberta Managing Director Women’s & Kids’, Mango



Human rights include the right to life, equality before the law, freedom of expression, economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, and the rights to development and self-determination. They are universal and inalienable, interdependent and indivisible, equal and non-discriminatory.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Apart from rights, they also comprise obligations. States have the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of their citizens, whereas individuals are obliged to respect the human rights of others.

Fashion has a multi-faceted relationship with human rights, regarding employment practices and the narratives of fashion, which either uphold or deny universal rights, equality and equity.

 For, as climate scientist, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, put it in the Washington Post last week, “How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes?”

“When people feel like they can make changes, they feel powerful. When we feel powerful we do things we never thought we could do. I just want to inspire every person to find their power because when that happens we end up moving mountains,” she concludes. 

According to international research on consumerism and well being, excessive shoppers experience emptiness and boredom in between shopping periods, with feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction fuelling their desire for further shopping experiences. In academia this is often called being trapped on the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Young, high income women are the most vulnerable. The spread of online shopping and social media makes people even more susceptible to over-consumption, driven also by constant comparison to others.


Millennials and Generation Z imperative

We are beginning to see the rise in Millennials and Generation Z demanding environmental justice. François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, has noted that, “Millennials, be it as consumers or as prospective employees, set the bar high and demand more transparency and responsibility from corporations.” They are conscious consumers wanting to know where and how the products they are buying are being made. They value high quality materials and craftsmanship.

Lucy Siegle has written for The Guardian “The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades.”

An average consumer does not realize how often they come across cotton during the day, right from the bedsheets, their towels, their clothing, and even currency notes. Cotton being a traditional crop, it has a lot of history with it. It is one of the colonial crops as well. China and India are one of the largest producers of cotton, but it is grown in the US, Australia, in many countries and Africa as well and Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan as well. And if they can signal and give strong messages to the brands and to the government that they care, and that the farmers should also get a fair price, there is no reason why the industry will not will not change, because the brands are always looking towards the consumers and what they ask for. It is about fairness that it should be fair for everyone in the supply chain, including the invisible farmers who grow the cotton that is in your clothes ,that should be fair for the businesses, and it should be fair for the consumers



There is 4 issues we have to fight

1 Why does gender inequality persist?

Sexual harassment is the fashion industry’s dirty secret. Brands are rarely called to account for what is happening to women making their clothing,” said Aru

Without the garment industry, the economy would just break down,” said Sam Mokhele, from the National Clothing and Textile Workers Union (NACTWU) union in Lesotho. The export garment industry accounts for more than 20% of the country’s GDP. 

What happened in Lesotho has, said Levi’s senior programme manager, Kim Almedia, been a “huge learning curve” for the brand. She said Levi’s is proud to have been part of the creation of the “groundbreaking” Lesotho Agreement. As a brand, Levi’s is, she said, dedicated to the wellbeing of the women working in its supply chain. “We recognise that 70-80% of our workers are women, and given the power imbalances that exist, this leads to issues,” she sa

exual harassment is the fashion industry’s dirty secret. Brands are rarely called to account for what is happening to women making their clothing,” said Aru

Without the garment industry, the economy would just break down,” said Sam Mokhele, from the National Clothing and Textile Workers Union (NACTWU) union in Lesotho. The export garment industry accounts for more than 20% of the country’s GDP. 

as if we want to keep creating products that we can be proud of for their beauty, their quality, but also their impact on the world. 

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation

Recent research from the University of California, Berkley found that women and girls from the most marginalised communities toiled for as little as 15 cents an hour in homes across India. Child labour and forced labour were rife and wages regularly suppressed [12]. Homeworking is common across supply chains in the fashion industry. Homeworking entails people often working without formal contracts or insurance and are paid in cash. Because homeworkers tend to be found in the informal economy, they do not have the same legal protections as formal workers. If they face exploitation, it is difficult for them to seek recourse. This is true not just for cheap clothing but also in the luxury fashion sector. An investigation by the New York Times found unregulated homeworkers in parts of Italy getting paid €1.50 to €2.00 per hour and working 16 to 18 hour days to make luxury garments for big-name brands .

These are many of the conditions that people face whilst working in the fashion industry and keeps them trapped in poverty.

What are fashion companies doing to address gender inequality?

Despite global fashion brands’ reliance on women in their supply chains, on the shop floor and within their companies, they are doing surprisingly little to address gender inequality and empower women. In the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index which covers 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers, only 7 brands (3% of brands) disclose how they involve affected women and women’s organisations in their due diligence process. Meanwhile, only 2 brands (less than 1% of brands) publish data on the prevalence of gender-based violations in the supplier facilities.

Interview example:

azma Akter, trade unionist, founder of the AWAJ Foundation and former child worker, discusses the challenges of being a worker in the fashion supply chain and why freedom of association and collective bargaining are essential for an improved industry for all.

I started garment factory work when I was eleven years old with my mum and me in 1968, because my family are very poor and I really needed to support them. I have one sister, three brothers, two grandmother and work with my parents and especially my father and It’s wasn’t sufficient. That is why I went at a very early age to start work in the garment factory. That is my journey to support my family. It’s very hard work, a 14 hour day, seven days a week and no breaks. So a not a note of employment, or contract, on time payment and maternity issues. Many things are absent, so it was very hard and difficult job what I faced. But this is also very difficult for me to explain to you because it’s very very hard but I had no option but having to work in this area. When I was 12 years old I lost my job because that I reliased the increase of the salary was not going to happen in my factory and people like demonstration, so they strike, so they (the company) decided a number of workers had to lose their jobs because the company doesn’t want to change the salary. And then they put pressure for employees to sign the White Paper, to work without salary increment, and many of them (workers) agree, because you know it is a poor country, they need job, family and health. We have a lot of politics here, cultrual, family, religious. So it’s ultra political here So it’s very difficult for all the female workers at that time to raise a voice.So that we had a problem that when my co-worker, my senior worker, they lost their job because they didn’t sign that white paper for those conditions to work, the company one. So I didn’t do it and they also fired me too, at age of 12. But when I was 14 or 15 years old, then I started my organizing and my labour movement, when I became a little bit older, because my factory has another problem they (garmet workers) were beaten by muscle men and then they lost workers.They (factories) were blacklisted and a lot of false cases, many areas when we are facing and that time we raised our boys. So it was like 15 or 16 years old I started signing up for organising and trade union movement. The working conditions in Bangladesh, as you know, our wage is the very lowest in the world in Bangladesh. Our wage is like 95 dollars (a month), which has recently increased which will be effective in December. So it’s still our wages are very low. So if the workers wage is very low, there is no respect.You know, so that is the thing that destroys our women workers, they then have malnutrition problem, daycare center based feeding rights, they have a lot of challenges. Their families are not very highly educated because of the money they earn and they have family either they have children in the countryside or their parents are living so they need to send them money. So these wages are not sufficient. So the malnutrition is a big challenge. As is sanitation, drinking water and living conditions are very poor and all malnutrition related diseases affect all kind of young girls.They are coming from rural to urban and they have a single life, so many cases they have a husband or they have sexual relations and he doesn’t know how to protect her. So unexpected babies, single mothers, also when the women get married, men are teaching also them that I’m not getting married or having baby, then leave. Then after that they have wife or children. So single mother also one of the big challenges in Bangladesh maybe more than 40 percent woman are single mothers. Also, when they raise their voice at the workplace they end up with different kinds of abuse like bullying, and even sometimes sexual abuse. The big challenge is that the majority of the labour force is female and the decision making of the boss (men), that you say is very important to gender-based violence issues and that is why you need to change because the boss are sometimes the way they’re bullying, affecting that behaviour and many bad apples, the bad way they are treated. Because of the labour force, and the bosses are men. So that is why it is very important for the gender-based violence issues is one of the important issues. With this challenge it’s not only Bangladesh, it is a whole worldwide and whole supply chain issue, because I don’t know how much the fashion brands are interested in the union. How much interested are the companies and the governments? You know this is the question because no company is interested to be union in the factory even though it will be more benefited, more accountable, more transparency, women workers can raise their voice and then to seek to get that in the same day or something you know so people are trying to use as a slip, so that is why it is difficult to get the union list and organising because nobody is interested because people are nowadays more thinking about the charity or corporate social responsibility but no one asked to keep the legal fundamental rights or legally binding issues so that is the things people are not really effected an act the human rights and work Act issues. Rather they are more interested on the charity or CSR issues. So that’s the area we need to change and that’s where we’ll find results. Union is the main tools where the workers can establish their fundamental rights and their benefits. So it is very important for the female workers that they have a union, if they have their own voice, especially at the factory level, if they have negotiation capacity and power, and if they resolve their conflict. It is easy to resolve and it is very important for the workers rights and also the productivity, you know, the companies should listen to the workers and the workers should listen to company, that is why union is very important. And if there is a CBA, Collective bargaining agreement, which is legal binding and legally allow workers access to more benefits, more things beyond the labour law. So that is why it’s very important if it is (union and collective bargaining) really functionable with the female workers. Our foundation is a grassroots workers organization, where we are trying to educate the workers about their rights and responsibility, all related to the labor law, leadership negotiations, conflict, occupational health and safety, reproductive rights, nutrition, sanitation, drinking water, maternal health, HIV, AIDS, STDs, all kinds of things, also child growth. Also, we are trying to look at the gender-based violence issues that come with these things. And also, we are trying to establish gender-based violence and anti-harassment committee in the workplaces. And we are trying to establish organizing and trying to form a unions. And a place where the workers can get their legal advice and support and we have legal suport from the garment workers and other workers, we have healthcare services for the garment workers and their children, we have daycare center for garment worker’s children. We have primary school for them and also we do a lot of maternity protection and all kinds of things. And we are trying to help the union to know how they have to sign their collective bargaining agreement and how they have to submit and how to negotiate these other issues. And also we have like migrant workers rights. We are also working for the leather workers, a different sector. We are trying to work on this area and we mainly focus on the especially women workers. Also recently, we have established a workers forum in Bangladesh where the mainly garments workers and female can participate in the trade union movement to 60 percent. So all the plant level union is where we have assisted, is more than 60 percent of female leadership. And these are the trying to embody this movement in the leaders. And also the next phase, is how to lobby and advocacy for the national issue and international issue so we can raise the female garment workers within their country and also globally. So there is some things we are trying to work on the whole supply chain issues and transparency and fair workers rights issues also.People need to basic fundamental issues for daily life, food, housing, clothing, health, education. Which is very important. So that is why, also the children at daycare center and maternity protection, these are very important issues. And if they are not getting proper living conditions and how they have to mitigate that and how they have to survive. You know if women get behind with this it’s automatically they will get more respect within the family within the society. They can take their own decision whatever they wanted to do for their children, e.g. better education. What about they want to contribute, they can freely move they can join in the union. They can join everything, because if they have money they have less fear, if they don’t have money they have fear because its two days until they’re getting food. What will they eat tomorrow. That is the frustration that they are scared of. If we really wanted to make a change, they need more money, they need freedom of association and they need respect.The living wage is what we want to acheve. That is why the principle companies, like brands, they should be accountable and they should give the fair prices to their workers, because the buyer nowadays are asking for better working conditions and more compliance. But after every season they are reducing the price. So how can that work? That is the things that multinational and fast fashion have to be responsible and accountable for those issues. And as long as they’re not changing then the living wage is not working because I know everywhere how they are treating our workers from the brand, from the supplier, and also the government.How does it work if that international support and corporation are not with them, because it’s not a one country issues, it is a whole country issues. And in many cases, also, if the salary is increasing, business would be moved to other countries. It’s a threat. So that threat has to be ensured from the principal brand, principle company like fast fashion should ensure those kind of things.The consumer has to know and they have to be tought how to do responsible buying, because every after season they got sales, they got discount, and a company like fast fashon brand, retailer or multinational, they are always getting the profit. And also the consumer they are also getting very good sale and very cheap price, getting the excellent things. But don’t think where these things are coming. That is somebodies blood and sweat, theyhave to be reminded. Nothing is free. Nothing is cheap. So somebody is paying. Who are they? They are the worker, they’re the female, they are the youth, they’re the young, the children who are producing these goods.So they have to learn how to buy fairly and they make the multinational accountable, consumer should also pay a better way, a multinational and retailer fashion brand also have to pay for the proper price for the the clothes we make. If we are not getting equal pay, equal voices, and if we are not getting proper wages, how will it work out? Because we are talking about the decent work, the SDG goal number eight. So what is the decent work and economical growth that means the productivity as well as living with freedom of association, collective bargaining. So those are the area to be ensured, it will be very challenging for that by 2030.

2 How global poverty links to the fashion industry

Sustainable Development Goal 1 is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” It is one of the fundamental goals of the international community and of the entire United Nations (UN) system.

Low pay is persistent

The global fashion industry is notorious for low pay, which helps perpetuate global poverty. From farmers to garment workers to retail workers, millions of people are struggling to support themselves and their families on what they are paid to produce and sell the textiles and clothing we wear.

The legal minimum wage in most garment-producing countries is rarely enough for a worker to live on. For example, the legal minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 8,000 taka (equivalent to about £73) per month [1]. However, campaigners say workers need double that amount for a decent standard of living [2]. According to Labour Behind the Label, there is a gap of 2 to 5 times, between minimum or industry-standard wages, and most living wage benchmarks based on a cost of living methodology [3].

According to the Global Living Wage Coalition, a living wage is defined as:

“The remuneration received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place is sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family. Elements of a decent standard of living include food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs including provision for unexpected events.” [4]

Essentially, being paid a living wage rate would mean workers can buy enough food to feed themselves and their families and live in adequate housing where a whole family isn’t forced to live in only one room. Living wages would ensure workers have enough money for education, for transport, for seeing the doctor and for savings in case of emergency. [4]

Source: Oxfam What She Makes

The majority of the world’s textile and garment workers live in developing economies where poverty endures due to complex, systemic and geopolitical reasons, which are too vast to cover in this article but worth exploring outside of this course. In 2018, China was the largest clothing exporter in the world whilst Bangladesh is the second-largest, followed by Vietnam, India, Turkey, Indonesia and Cambodia in the top 10 [6]. These are countries where significant amounts of the population are still desperately poor.

However, poverty is an issue for textile and garment workers in developed economies too. For example, garment workers in Leicester in England were recently found to be paid as little as £3.50 an hour, which is less than half of the legal minimum wage rate for people over age 21 in the UK.

The fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to forced labour, according to the Global Slavery Index produced by the Walk Free Foundation. [8]

According to Anti-slavery International:

  • “Forced labour – any work or services which people are forced to do against their will under the threat of some form of punishment.

  • Debt bondage or bonded labour – when people borrow money they cannot repay and are required to work to pay off the debt, then lose control over the conditions of both their employment and the debt.

  • Human trafficking – involves transporting, recruiting or harbouring people for the purpose of exploitation, using violence, threats or coercion.

  • Child slavery – Whilst child labour is harmful for children and hinders their education and development, child slavery occurs when a child is exploited for someone else’s gain. It can include child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage and child domestic slavery.” [9]

Forced, bonded and child labour can be found in myriad forms in fashion supply chains. For example, around 170,000 people are forced by the government to pick cotton in Uzbekistan each year — cotton that ends up in the clothes we may purchase from major fashion brands [10].


Goal 8.7: End Child Labour in all its Forms


Target 8.7 of Sustainable Development Goal 8 sets out to: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery* and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”.

The fashion industry has a major part to play in ending child labour by 2025. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 152 million children are engaged in forms of child labour [1], and while the International Labour Organization (ILO) has shown that this figure is on a downward trend, many children are still working within the garment supply chain.

Source: Child Labor Coalition

What constitutes child labour?

Any child working under the age of 15 is considered to be partaking in child labour. 48% of victims of child labour are just 5-11 years old [1]. In many cases, this work can involve long hours, unsafe working conditions, and low wages - dangers that children are particularly vulnerable to.

It is this vulnerability that necessitates children be granted special protections under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into effect in 1990 [2]. Within the Convention, children are guaranteed a right to education and a right to play and leisure time. These two promises of childhood are most at risk of being lost when young people engage in child labour.

Parents may be aware that their child is working, either because the parent is unable to work or because they earn a wage which is insufficient to support a family. Gender inequality, and particularly women’s lack of equal pay, can force children into work.

A 2014 study by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations documented child labour trafficking of South Indian girls whereby: “Recruiters convince parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to the spinning mills with promises of a well-paid job, comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment at the end of three years. However, when the girls arrive at the mills, it turns out that the reality of their new working life is not so attractive” [3]. The study saw the nature of work include 60+ hour working weeks, obligatory overtime and night shifts, undignified disciplinary measures, lack of fresh air and minimal or no safety training.

According to SOMO, the most at-risk countries for child labour in the fashion supply chain are Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Uzbekistan. What links these countries, and all areas where child labour is most prevalent, is a high rate of poverty combined with barriers to free and accessible education [3].

Children can often be better suited to work than adults, having smaller hands for more intricate work such as beading or sequin making. This is a critical reason why children are so heavily employed in picking cotton in particular

The fashion industry also needs to take responsibility for its contribution to the poverty of those working in the supply chain. By consistently driving down the cost of clothing, fashion brands perpetuate a situation where workers earn extremely low pay, meaning that parents have few other options but to send their children to work. It is here that SDG 8 is intrinsically linked with SDG 1: No Poverty and SDG 5: Gender Equality. Considering that the vast majority of garment workers are women and working mothers, ensuring a living wage for the people that make our clothes is key to keeping children out of work.

“The right to organise with others to fight for better working conditions is a universal human right: Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his/her interests.” This is a fundamental condition set out by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 23.4.

The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association was set up in 1951 to examine violations of workers’ and employers’ organising rights. 

What is collective bargaining?

In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights for the first time recognised the right to collective bargaining as an essential element of the right to form and join trade unions as protected by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Collective bargaining is crucial for ensuring fair wages and good working conditions in the global fashion industry.

The ILO defines collective bargaining as: “a process of negotiation between the representatives of an employer (or employers) and of workers. The intention of these negotiations is to arrive at a collective agreement that will govern the employment relationship.

This typically covers issues such as wages, working time, and other working conditions. Since collective agreements also regulate labour relations they are likely to address the rights and responsibilities of the respective parties. Collective bargaining is premised on a well-defined employment relationship and the freedom of workers and employers to associate to an organisation that represents their interests. It is a means to address work-related issues in a way that accommodates the interests of all parties concerned. Collective bargaining involves a process of joint decision making and is thus distinct from other forms of governance such as government regulation, individual contracts and/or the unilateral decisions of employers.” 

Imagine something was happening in your workplace that you thought was unfair or perhaps you feel like your company is taking advantage of you or discriminating against you.

Now imagine if other people at your workplace felt the same as you. In response, all of you decide to join forces in order to bring up your concerns to your manager and push for the company to come to an agreement with you to change the situation. This is essentially what collective bargaining is all about. When done formally, it typically means you would join or form a trade union that represents employees in negotiations with your employers. It means that you have a collective voice at work that represents your best interests.

Source: ACT

Unionisation in the global garment supply chain

However, according to campaign group Labour Behind the Label, only a very small percentage of all garment workers worldwide are unionised and have access to collective bargaining processes.

Furthermore, even when unions do exist, they have often been set up by factory managers rather than independently and democratically formed by workers themselves.

Garment workers are routinely denied freedom of association rights

Although workers worldwide are promised the fundamental right to freedom of association, in reality, millions of workers are prevented from forming or joining unions through various means.

This may include the government denying union registration, imposing onerous legal restrictions or police falsely arresting organisers and repressing strikes. Tactics such as intimidation, abuse, violence and even sometimes murder are used by governments, factory owners or hired hooligans against workers who try to form and join trade unions or organise public protests.

Between December 2018 and January 2019 a massive wave of protests swept across Bangladesh’s garment industry when workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage. The government sought to repress the strikes by arresting protesters, whilst employers in more than a hundred factories fired protesting workers. According to an estimate provided by the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC), the national coordinating body of IndustriALL Global Union, over 11,600 workers lost their jobs as a result. 70 workers were arrested, one person was killed and many were injured in the protests.

Source: Fashion Revolution

China has some of the strongest labour rights legislation in the world. China’s Trade Union Law provides all workers access to freedom of association, collective bargaining rights and to democratically elect worker representatives. However, when it comes to implementation and enforcement, it’s a very different story. There is actually only one recognised and sanctioned union in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The union is part of the Chinese governmental structure. Assembling outside the ACFTU framework is against the law. When workers interests conflict with the government’s policies and priorities, then workers are ignored. What this means, in reality, is that Chinese garment workers do not have freedom of association and independent collective bargaining rights. This doesn’t mean that all factories in China are exploitative. Some factories will still choose to sign a collective bargaining agreement, provide space for the union to operate independently and allow elected union representatives. [6-8]

Union busting and violent suppression of union activity have had a long history in the garment sector across Central America, particularly in societies such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And in the U.S. trade unions have been decimated since the 1980s as the country has moved towards a less regulated version of capitalism. Today, the percentage of workers who are members of unions in the U.S. is just over 10%, about half of what it was at the start of the 1980s. It’s sad to think that the once strong International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) no longer exists. It was once one of the largest and most crucial trade unions in the country and was responsible for ushering in comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws that citizens across the U.S. benefit from today. 

Research shows that trade unions are actually good for business

Despite this, research conducted many decades ago by Harvard economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff showed that unions are good for business and society, contrary to popular political rhetoric at the time. They found that unions are associated with lower employee turnover, improvements in workplace practices, increased productivity and efficiency, strong health and safety, better retention of skills and reduced wage inequality in companies. More recently in the UK, research undertaken on behalf of the Trade Union Congress found similar benefits to business: fewer injuries, less time off, fewer compensation payments, less money spent on recruiting and training, which all means money saved for companies. 

Source: ACT

What are fashion companies doing to support freedom of association?

Some major fashion brands are taking steps to better ensure workers’ rights to freely associate, join trade unions and collectively bargain are upheld. ASOS, Esprit, H&M, Inditex (who owns brands such as Zara and Pull & Bear), Mizuno, and Tchibo have each signed a Global Framework Agreement with IndustriALL Global Union, the world’s largest global trade union representing clothing, textile and footwear industry workers. Global Framework Agreements are negotiated on a global level between trade unions and a multinational company. They establish a framework for protecting and strengthening the rights of garment workers making their products in countries around the world. 

In the garment sector, IndustriALL Global Union has also recently set up the Action, Collaboration and Transformation (ACT) initiative to bring together trade unions and major fashion brands and retailers to negotiate and agree higher wages, fairer prices and better working conditions for the whole sector within a country. Collective bargaining at an industry level means that workers within a country can negotiate their wages under the same conditions, regardless of the factory they work in or the retailers and brands they produce for. Linking it to brands’ purchasing practices, it means that payment of the negotiated wage is supported and enabled by the price brands pay for the products they order from their suppliers. The long-term goal is to achieve living wages in the garment, textiles and footwear sectors. The initiative is still in the early stages, and we will see how this unique approach develops. 

Without the ability for all workers to have true representation, a collective voice and bargaining power, we are unlikely to see a transformative and positive change in the global fashion industry. Workers need to be enabled to negotiate better wages and working conditions for themselves. Without that, we will only ever see small, incremental change and the risk of factory accidents like the Rana Plaza collapse will remain a reality.

Goal 8.8: Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers

lot of the problems in the garment industry are endemic you see them roughly in every factory. These range from very unsafe working conditions, to low wages, long working hours, not necessarily being at freedom to decide if you’re going to perform overtime or if you want to join a union you get resistance to that, you get fired, you get beaten, you get threatened. There’s a lot of problems coming together in the garment industry.

With globalization brands, international brands, and retailers went to the most cheap place to produce at reasonable quality, and at the delivery times that they wanted, and brands and retailers tend to always want the same quality, good lead times, at a lower price, so they go to the supplier, the factory, who is able to perform that specific operation at the lowest price possible. Those factory owners also need to then cut costs. You can’t cut costs on your raw materials, the cloths, the tissues and so forth. So the thing that is most squeezable are then the labor rights conditions.

Factory managers want to avoid unions at all costs because the moment you do have workers join or form a union of their own choosing or basically seeking support with each other and building power together, that’s the moment that workers are also going to ask for, for example, clean toilets, or higher wages or safer buildings or less long working hours and so forth. All things that cost money and that are eating away the profit margin of either the factory or the brand. But given that it’s the brand who has the power in the relationship it’s basically going to eat away in the profits of the factory.

Whenever you have an independent and democratic and functioning union in a factory, that union will try to work with management to for example improve working time, reduce working time, bargaining with management to maybe get additional money to get higher wages, get maybe a bonus. Unions if they seek to bargain with management can also deal with very concrete and practical issues. I’m thinking about toilets being clean, enough toilets, the quality of food in the canteen. All kinds of issues ranging from very very practical issues like is my chair in which I’m sitting 10 hours a day comfortable.

And is the temperature not too hot, to the more fundamental issues like am I actually being paid a decent and basic minimum living wage.

So it is forcible for the garment industry to reach the SDG goals and then specific SDG goal 8, de,cent work for all, but the crucial element for achieving this is the political commitments of the brands who hold the power in the supply chain, take up their responsibility, to go to the factories where they’re producing, to check out what’s happening , are there any labor rights violations and if there are risks or actual violations, stop, prevent or mitigate them.