As we reach the end of this series, I am quite excited to go out with a bang! Reader, this is your final call to action: it is the call to take climate action. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 13, Climate Action, aims to take urgent measures to combat climate change and its impacts.
My take on SDG 13 is that we, the actors of the fashion industry, must not only do all that is possible to prevent and mitigate the risks the fashion industry poses to the environment, but we also must have a climate positive effect. It is not enough to just reduce the harm of our industry, we must be actively working to morph into an industry that offsets prior damage.
Climate justice is an issue of human rights. The fashion industry must accept this truth and work towards a climate positive and equitable supply chain, which sets a precedent for consumers to demand the same level of climate consciousness from other industries. The fashion industry could be the leader of holistic sustainability, but first needs to step up and clean up its own actions by implementing standards for environmental and social justice. In a growing movement, consumers have begun demanding that their brands step up and do better; to stand up to racism, create a more equitable value chain, push the limits of innovation, and create sustainable fashion items.
Fashion policy positively influencing other industries is not without precedent: take the 10 hour work day movement in the U.S.. In 1834, the workers at the Lowell textile mills formed a women-led union and went on strike when their wages were cut.. After years of organizing, the Girls formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The Lowell Girl’s 10 hour work day campaign was a massive effort in which they petitioned for a 10 hour work day versus their usual 13 hours. This was before women were legally recognized in politics, but Lowell Girls preserved and demanded fairer working conditions. The movement gave strength to women whose voices and livelihoods were easily ignored. The Lowell Girls were a part of a larger movement in the U.S. in which industrial workers demanded fair working hours. 181 years ago, in March 1840 President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating that all manual workers employed on government contracts could only be required to work 10 hours per work day. The Lowell Girls were not on government contracts, they were left to the mercy of the capitalist garment factory owners, much like garment workers in 2021. Even though the Lowell Girls could not secure their own labor rights, their movement made progress for workers on government contracts.
In addition to labor rights, fashion industry standards must dictate that brands get to work on creating a more climate-just industry: holding brands accountable for their actions, and ensuring consumers have an affordable and convenient way to consume responsibly.
For industry professionals and brands, climate risks should be assessed, mitigated, and prevented. This means examining every step from conception of a fashion item all the way to the end of the product’s life. Possible risks to garment workers must also be considered and prevented, while consulting the preferences of those most deeply affected. Having a people and planet first policy, enforced by government-created industry standards, will put this plan into action.
In the interim, before policies are created to enforce such standards from the top-down, consumers with privilege should look to encourage accountability, educating themselves of the dangers the fashion industry poses to them and the planet. In a similar fashion to which consumers re-examined their relationships with brands during the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement in summer 2020, consumers should let brands know that they are watching, reading, and gathering information of how the brand conducts business. Mass dissent to a brand’s business practices, such as thoughtless pollution, exposed internal racism, or exploitation of garment workers, can be a powerful force in driving down sales through purchasing power. This backlash could inspire the “cancelling” of the brand, which is far worse for business than losing a chunk of profit in the name of ethical production.
Reformation, a sustainable fashion brand, is no stranger to such backlash. The company came under fire in 2020 when its employees revealed racism prevalent in business practices from the boardroom to the sales floor. Reformation’s sizable donations to the NAACP and Black Visions Collective was perceived as deception by consumers and employees alike. Widespread demand for reform from the brand eventually led to the resignation of the brand’s CEO. Consumers seem to remain wary of Reformation today, as they now have a keen eye for spotting brands’ baseless claims of championing diversity and inclusion. Reformation was “cancelled” and suffered mass loss of profit due to an overarching rejection of their business practices. I hope that this process of accountability soon extends to multinational fast fashion corporations committing both human rights and environmental abuses.
Because climate action is the intersection of climate justice and social justice, it also must include racial justice beyond internal practices: communities most affected by the climate crises are primarily Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The people who produce fashion items in the Global South are the same who bear the brunt of climate impacts from garment manufacturing. The Global North purchases fashion items from brands who prey on lax social and environmental regulations of garment producing countries in the Global South. Purchasing power is everything: for those who can afford to, it buys glitzy garments for immediate gratification, all while hiding human rights atrocities in another land.
You see Reader, the fashion industry may be run by our dollars, but those dollars are owned by a handful of multinational executives, who for the most part are not subject to policies from the U.S. government. It is through legislation that climate action for the fashion industry will force global executives to take action of their own. With the combined efforts of brands and consumers, a new wave of fashion will emerge. This will only be possible if there are accountability frameworks set by governments in both the Global North and South. Currently, there has been a call for President Biden to appoint a ‘fashion czar’. I agree that the U.S. needs a fashion person in government, and no, Michelle Obama’s inauguration outfit does not count. Policy follows culture: this new wave will lead the way for fashion climate policy which will extend to human rights and racial justice.Without immediate actions or policies, the fashion industry’s global impact has the potential to set the planet ablaze, literally.