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Some answers to the global costs of fast fashion

Ana Rizelo and Ocean O'Malley discuss what is needed to address the impact of fast fashion on the world.

Posted on 08 November 2023

The fashion industry is a multi-trillion-dollar behemoth and a pillar of the global economy, but it comes at a huge worldwide cost. The industry is responsible for a variety of large-scale environmental harms as well as significant human rights abuses for workers within supply chains. The corporate requirement for relentless growth – the industry is aiming to increase production by 63 per cent by 2030 – provides a need for urgent answers before a point of no return.

An inadequate legislative response by governments has worsened problems. Left to themselves, most companies have not undertaken adequate human rights due diligence.

Following events we attended in the UK Parliament and the Brazilian Embassy (“Creating Fashion for Tomorrow”), it is clear that private innovation and individual action have a role to play, but bold new laws in the UK would be more significant. A ‘Business, Human Rights, and Environment Act’ that would hold private companies and the public sector accountable if they did not prevent human rights and environmental harms, either at home or internationally, is long overdue.

What are the issues?

Overwhelming market competitiveness has created a desire within the fashion industry to maintain clothing standards while also keeping low price points. Any considerations other than corporate profits, including environmental and human rights impacts, have not been a priority.

Emissions emitted from garment production globally have overtaken the combined amount of emissions from aviation and shipping. The United Nations has noted that the fashion industry is responsible for a remarkable 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and has declared it an “environmental emergency”.

Waste being sent to the Global South is also a significant issue. Kantamanto market in Accra receives nearly 800 million new garments a year: 40 per cent of these garments end up as waste. A variety of improper handling techniques – with a considerable negative environmental impact – then occur, including burning, dumping, or washing out to sea. In 2015, over 92 million tons of waste was produced globally because of the garment industry.

Additionally, a number of fashion enterprises have consistently shown a lack of interest in addressing the human rights issues within their supply chains.

Multiple investigations within the UK have alleged that vulnerable garment workers continue to suffer from underpayment of wages and exploitative working conditions. The Levitt Report found that the “allegations about poor working conditions and low rates of pay in many Leicester factories are… substantially true” and noted that clothing brand Boohoo “has not felt responsible for conditions in the Leicester factories on anything other than a superficial level”.

The BBC Panorama programme on Boohoo, aired on 6 November 2023, further exposes those issues: an undercover journalist witnessed evidence of staff pressuring suppliers to drive prices down, even after deals had been agreed.

Internationally, the situation is worse. Lessons from the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where 1,138 people died in a preventable tragedy in 2013, have not been properly learnt. The United Nations has stated unequivocally that the garment industry is known for “dangerous working conditions due to unsafe processes”, and that supply chain pressures lead to “workers suffering from long working hours and low pay”. A report by Labour Behind the Labelfound that tens of millions of international garment workers are underpaid by billions each month.

Supply chain workers internationally are easily repressed with little chance of reprisal. In Bangladesh itself, union leader Shahidul Islam was murdered in June this year following a visit to Gazipur, a well-known fashion industry location. An August 2023 report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) alleged abuse of hundreds of garment workers in Myanmar: notably, these workers were all employed by factories that supply western brands.

These are serious, industry-wide issues which the Leigh Day team is currently investigating.

How can the problem be solved?

There are potential non-legislative actions that could help partially alleviate these issues. Innovation can steer fashion into a more sustainable path: the recent event Brazil: Creating Fashion for Tomorrow was a good example of trailblazing methods that can help the industry evolve further renewable practices. This is sorely needed: a Schroders report found that the fashion industry is not factoring in the impact of climate change on its own practices. The usual response of brands – to change the location of their manufacturing hubs – will not be possible because of the seismic impact on the environment. The report found that persisting with current inaction would cut export earnings in Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam – four garment manufacturing hubs - by around $1.4 trillion.

Raising awareness further is also important. While a McKinsey study found that a sustainable lifestyle was important to 78 per cent of US consumers, brands say this is not affecting consumer purchasing decisions.

The main problem, however, is inescapable: allowing the fashion industry and business to self-regulate – largely through voluntary commitments – has fostered a lack of accountability. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark’s 2022 update found only a third of companies put any human rights expectations on their suppliers.Fashion companies have proven themselves either unwilling or unable to regulate themselves adequately. The UK government must therefore enact legislation that allows these companies to be held to account.

A new law should require companies to enact human rights and environmental due diligence throughout operations. Small adjustments to existing law would be insufficient: a 2021 legal opinion commissioned by the BHRRC found that even if “there may be evidence of breaches of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” from a fashion company, it currently “has no force of law in the UK”.

A so-called ’Business, Human Rights and Environment Act’ would expand on the Environment Act’s Due Diligence Schedule 17 and compel companies to identify and address the environmental impacts of their activities both in the UK and abroad. If wide-ranging remedies – including both financial and non-financial compensation – were possible, in the long-term, companies would be forced to take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

The law should also go further than the ‘Transparency in Supply Chains’ requirement in the UK Modern Slavery Act. It should require preventative action based on reporting, as in the Netherlands. It should combine obligations with legal liability for damaging actions, as in France. This is likely to have the support of the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has previously recommended that “the Government bring forward legislation to impose a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuses”.

If the law is to be truly effective, it must be the product of meaningful consultation with a wider range of groups, including civil society organisations and trade unions. It must also ingrain the rights of women, children, and indigenous people at the heart of any due diligence requirement on companies.

Ana Rizelo
Corporate accountability Diesel emissions claims Group claims International human rights

Ana Rizelo

Ana is a solicitor in the international department

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