Published on February 27, 2024

A worker-first approach for sustainable fashion

Fashion is about imagination, creativity and self-expression. But behind the scenes it is also back-breaking work with little respite for the garment workers that produce our clothes. And far from the creative hub of a designer’s small studio, fashion these days is a giant industry convincing us to buy ever more and amassing huge profits at the expense of workers and the planet.

The fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions – that’s more than international aviation and shipping combined, and 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution. It is evident that to tackle the climate crisis, this needs to stop. We need to address the industry’s business model – but to do so, it’s vital to centre the experiences of garment workers.

Why are garment workers’ rights the key to re-imagining the fashion industry?

Firstly, progress on global sustainability goals can only be achieved if we move on all of them, and that includes work on poverty, decent work and economic security. But it is also the communities where garment production is situated that are on the frontline of the climate crisis.

Garment production has radically shifted towards the global south in the last 50 years in a largely successful attempt from fashion brands to take advantage of a globalising economy and cheaper labour costs. At the same time, fashion brands insist that the complexity of their supply chains insulates them from responsibility for the conditions under which garment workers produce their clothes – the label on the fabric may be theirs, but the workers sewing it on and paid a poverty wage are not recognised as the brand’s worker.

Production countries compete to attract investment and maintain a business-friendly environment to the detriment of worker organising and social security, while the rules of the global economy see governments pay more to service debt than they can on social provision.

So what is to be done?

A just transition for fashion needs to not just scale back on climate emissions, but also rethink the role that the people at the heart of fashion play – and put their agency and rights at the centre of the solution. Climate justice in fashion starts with justice for garment workers.

Putting workers at the heart of a just transition does not mean as citizens in the global north we sit back and do nothing. In fact, we are ideally placed to put pressure on fashion brands to clean up their act. Our power as citizens to pressure brands and decision makers can make all the difference, through small, regular actions together in solidarity with workers who make our clothes. While brands produce in the global south to keep their costs down and to minimise scrutiny, we as citizens are all connected.

At Labour Behind the Label we work within the global Clean Clothes Campaign network to link directly to workers in production countries and raise their urgent cases and their grievances with the fashion brands that have directly benefited from their work. We give a platform to our supporters to take action to push brands in the right direction, but we also campaign for better regulation and curbing the power of corporations so workers stand a fairer chance. Our supporters organise actions and campaign for the rights of garment workers in trade unions, workplaces, schools and communities across the UK. One positive step to make a difference is to sign up to our email list and commit to using your voice to amplify workers’ demands.

We believe workers are best placed to advocate for themselves and to make change happen. Garment workers come from communities that are being pushed to the brink by the climate crisis. The profits from their labour flow towards us in the global north, while the impacts of the industry hits their homes. Beyond our consumer power we must urgently find our voice and our power as citizens to ensure a fairer distribution of the wealth and the risks in this industry.

Author: Alena Ivanova, Campaigns Lead for Labour Behind the Label