The global fashion industry must recognise the inextricable links between human rights and respect for nature if it is to effectively contribute to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed a panel of industry experts at Fashion Revolution’s annual Question Time event.

Fashion Revolution Week, the annual campaign calling for a fashion industry that values people and the planet over growth and profit, this year held its Question Time in partnership with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It was an extension of the event’s overarching theme, ‘Rights, Relationships and Revolution,’ which argues living on a healthy planet should be a fundamental human right, and calls for urgent action from the fashion industry.

The idea is that human rights and the rights of nature are interconnected and interdependent and that a revolution is needed in peoples’ relationships with each other, within fashion supply chains, and with the natural world in order to drive prosperity and wellbeing and the health of the earth and oceans.

On the panel was Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of environmental not-for-profit Canopy; Nazma Akter, founder of Bangladeshi labour rights NGO AWAJ Foundation and Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation; Lara Wolters, member of the EU Parliament; and Sunny Dolat, co-founder of Kenyan activist Nest Collective.

Black and Asian communities disadvantaged by fashion

Dolat opened the session with his point around the links between race and the fashion industry, arguing that the sector has for decades relied significantly on black and brown labour with factories situated between black, brown and indigenous communities around the world.

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He pointed to the communities that live near factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan where wastewater is released into rivers. “There’s not enough conversation or challenge around why factories continue to start up in these places.

“A lot of people are talking about the next manufacturing hub being Ethiopia and it is well set up for garment manufacture. But of course what isn’t there is minimum wage.

“I think we need to challenge these factories more. As people are moving production to Ethiopia, what lessons have they learned and what can they apply? And if these same factories were naughty in Bangladesh or India, and are now running to Ethiopia, we have to start to interrogate them.”

“The buyers always audit the factories. But how often do they audit the workers’ lives? Are they eating? How many hours are they working? What has the impact to their health been of working in the factory?” – Nazma Akter

Akter asserted that much of the problem comes from a power imbalance, adding that all world systems would have to be revolutionised for real change, for a real sustainable future.

She pointed to the Rana Plaza disaster which took place eight years ago this week, in which more than 1,000 people died when a garment factory building collapsed.

“What has changed with the system? Nothing,” she said, calling for more equality between businesses and workers. “The industry is not listening and learning because of greed. They don’t think about living wages and livelihoods,” she said, adding workers in Bangladesh are earning US$100 a month while major retailers reap the profits.

“How can workers be expected to live on this wage? It needs to be properly addressed and all stakeholders need to raise their voices, including workers. We need to be united on how to get fair business and fair wages, We need to fight against capitalism in order for real sustainability.”

She added many initiatives had been discussed in relation to Bangladesh, aimed at enabling sustainable growth, but much of the time the industry is focused on talk over action.

And she called for brands to be held accountable for their actions towards suppliers, which impact both human rights and the rights of the planet.

“The Bangladeshi garment sector is clearly important. The whole of Bangladesh is locked down except the garment sector because it is fundamental to the success of Bangladesh and the success of global retailers.”

“The buyers always audit the factories. But how often do they audit the workers’ lives? Are they eating? How many hours are they working? What has the impact on their health been of working in the factory?

Wolters added there is room for education around the repercussions of a brand’s actions on its supply chains.

“For the brands it [cancelling orders] allowed them to look OK on their balance sheets. But the true cost was people’s jobs, their lives, people were going hungry, workers were travelling home to villages from cities and spreading Covid further. So of course the true cost was much greater than just the cost of cancelled orders.”

Legislation alone won’t solve the problem

But she said while legislation and incentives can be provided, there is a definite need for sound rules surrounding corporate governance.

Public procurement is a case in point. “We need to make sure that governments and money going from them is not spent on companies offering products or services too cheaply. I think there is room for legislation on consumer standards. I see a role for collective redress where consumers can hold organisations accountable for failings.”

She also argued that as social media continues to gain traction, businesses would no longer be able to hide shortcomings on climate change and human rights, and the oppressed are “now getting a voice.”

“What’s important is we force companies to know about what is going on in their value chains. An all-encompassing due diligence law is at least one of the things we need” – Lara Wolters

“This is much to the distress of the establishment but via twitter, more people that we wouldn’t have heard about, that wouldn’t have been regular talking heads maybe ten years ago, can now express themselves and show some of the global consequences of the fashion industry. I think it means problems and scandals linked to the fashion industry – think forced labour, think Xinjiang cotton – get exposed more quickly. It means companies can no longer be on the sidelines of these questions.”

But despite this exposure, there are no solutions yet. This is where, she said, legislation is key.

She called for rules that no longer allow companies to look away, and said she is working on a specific project with rules on a “duty of care” for companies which means they have a duty to explore their entire value chains right up to where the raw materials are sourced.

“What’s important is we force companies to know about what is going on in their value chains. An all-encompassing due diligence law is at least one of the things we need.”

“The importance is to ensure there are consequences if companies ignore the negative impacts on the environment, human rights, local communities. That’s a difficult thing to do because quite often companies can hide and say this happens so far up my value chain or this happens so far away I had no idea. They can often make use of an international legal system that is designed for multinationals and big business rather than for local communities and people in factories making clothes.

The benefit of incentives

But incentives from governments to fuel sustainable change could also help, added Dolat.

He pointed to the Kenyan government, which has been on a drive to revive its cotton industry. Government incentives have prompted people to experiment with banana fibre, nettle and water hyacinth to try and create textiles “with some quite successful” attempts.

“If governments don’t incentivise innovation what you’ll have is people coming in to replicate models that failed elsewhere, it’s the same for new ways of production. It is absolutely possible to look at kinder ways of production. That won’t happen unless there are incentives for people to do so.”

But to work they would need to go hand in hand with penalties, he added.

“We can’t continue to have unlimited growth. We have to recalibrate so societies can live in the natural bounds of our natural world. This means we get to be really creative in transforming existing and damaging linear supply chains” – Nicole Rycroft

Wolters agreed. “One thing we have learned from the past year – voluntary measures, voluntary certifications, voluntary schemes, ones that companies can use to say look our materials are responsible – any of those have not really borne fruit because they have allowed companies to hide or greenwash certain things due to a certificate.

“What is important is we create legislation that supports innovators that want to do well. If you are not obliged to do something it’s easier for others to have a better bottom line than you. We want to support by making legislation that allows the race to the top not the race to the bottom. And I think it is important we create the right legislation on shareholders and long term value creations and the type of legislation that would disincentivise CEOs from making decisions that prove detrimental to the environment or human rights.”

2030 is the deadline

Ultimately though, businesses are recognising change is necessary if they see themselves operating successfully in years to come.

Rycroft said she is encouraged by the uptake by brands to Canopy’s initiative to transform the viscose supply chain. She said once the larger brands had committed to the initiative, their leadership had “triggered a cascade of change” that she hoped would translate through to the other issues, whether environmental or social.

“We are smarter than using 400-500-year-old trees to make pizza boxes, so are accelerating the transition to using recycled alternatives, using agricultural alternatives, residues, or microbial cellulose to make packaging rather than virgin cotton or high-value transitions.”

“We can’t continue to have unlimited growth. We have to recalibrate so societies can live in the natural bounds of our natural world. That doesn’t mean we have to crawl back into a cave. Business-as-usual is no longer an option. This means we get to be really creative in transforming existing and damaging linear supply chains.”

She also called for an acceleration of the development of business models that are part of the circular economy such as rental/repair models.

“It is about recognising brands won’t be vibrant businesses in 30 years time unless there are these fundamental shifts taking place, because they won’t be able to access the raw materials they need to produce the apparel or ship them in the packaging they need because we are in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

When asked how long it would take to reach a fashion system that respects all people, plants, creatures and ecosystems, Rycroft and Akter were unanimous in the opinion there is no option but to achieve significant change by 2030.

“It will be a real shame [if we don’t] achieve the sustainable development goals,” said Akter.

“I think people are very clear this is the turnaround decade for our planet,” agreed Rycroft. “That is the timeline. We have to get it done before 2030. Covid has shown us we can literally turn things around overnight if we have to – and that’s the attitude we need to go in with.”