The fashion industry has been talking about sustainability for a good while now. The environment, living wage, circular economy, climate change are subjects high on everyone’s agenda. This week one of the most important fashion summits took place in Copenhagen with a high-profile list of speakers talking about all these urgent issues. Lucy Siegle, a British environmental writer calls the summit the industry’s annual horse and pony show. “Chat is in abundance. It’s frank evidence and clear-eyed solutions that are in short supply.” I tend to agree with her.

But let’s set aside any cynicism for the moment and acknowledge some amazing progress. We’ve seen how H&M has set targets for using recycled materials and other sustainably-sourced materials. The company wants to be climate change positive by 2040. France is looking at banning brands from burning excess stock. PVH which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger has set a target that by 2025 all of its dress shirts, jeans and underwear will be recyclable.

But, progress has slowed. Have a look at the new Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update. In a nutshell, the pace of sustainability progress in the fashion industry has slowed by a third in the past year. Progress “is not moving fast enough to counterbalance the harmful impact of the fashion industry’s rapid growth. Unless the current trend of the Pulse Score improves, fashion will continue to be a net contributor to climate change, increasing the risk that the Paris Agreement’s objective of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius during the remainder of this century will not be achieved.”

75% of consumers surveyed view sustainability as extremely or very important but only 7% say it’s the key purchasing criterion

All good? This progress is important to consumers. Or so we say. According to Pulse of Fashion, 75% of consumers surveyed view sustainability as extremely or very important but only 7% say it’s the key purchasing criterion. Looking successful, quality and price take preference. Basically we’re tagging and bragging about the right brands etc but when it comes to our shopping habits, we’re still supporting unsustainable brands – brands that aren’t concerned with both their social and environmental impact.

That’s why I want to use this opportunity to remind you what our fast fashion habits mean to people producing these clothes for you and me. This report Made in Ethiopia: Challenges in the Garment Industry’s new Frontier published by NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights does a good job at raising important issues. For instance:

“The typical worker’s wage barely covers her expenses for food, transportation to and from the factory, and housing… In the months after Hawassa’s opening, living expenses actually rose, as the influx of workers caused severe inflation in the regions surrounding the park…. One young woman showed us the concrete-floor she and three fellow workers rent from a home-owner. There is no toilet, only an open-air latrine near-by. The woman said she and her roommates work different shifts, and she’d had some of her belongings stolen. Sometimes, she added, there is no food left for her when she returns from the factory. All four women sleep on thin mattresses on the floor, and when it rains, water seeps into the living space. We heard from others at the park that some employers hand out plastic sheets, which employees place between their mattresses and the concrete floor in an attempt to stay dry.”

This is the experience of workers in the Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia. Built to attract foreign investment, the park has been in operation for two years. Ethiopia has promised to open a total of 30 by 2025. Hawassa Park is located 225 kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa, currently has 25,000 employees, mostly women, producing garments for global brands including Levi’s, Guess, H&M, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

We know that the fashion industry chases low-cost labour. Manufacturers are always on a hungry hunt for the cheapest possible solutions. They’ve been in China, then in Mauritius, Madagascar, Bangladesh and now Ethiopia which offers the cheapest labour for the garment industry. But what is the true cost of this? According to the Stern report:

  • Living conditions at the Hawassa park are appalling;
  • $26 dollars (R375) is the entry level monthly salary which comes to only $312 (R4 505) or 40% of the average per capita annual income of $783 in Ethiopia;
  • Workers complained about being shouted at by their foreign managers and for not receiving adequate training, leading to a hostile working environment;
  • Low productivity and 100% attrition rates, meaning training costs are high, and efficiency rates low;
  • Workers, mostly young women who migrate to the factories from rural villages, have trouble living on what they’re paid, leading many of them to quit and return home;
  • Influx of workers from the countryside has sparked severe price inflation for food and shelter;
  • Cost of renting a bare room with no plumbing near Hawassa increased from as little as $14 a month to as much as $52;
  • Very weak / virtually no trade union movement.

The report offers recommendations including that workers need to be trained, motivated and paid enough to afford basic necessities. Some companies are offering slightly higher wages and a few others offer incentives and bonuses.

Officials believe that this situation is the hard reality of growing an economy and that some degree of generational sacrifice has to take place. “Today’s workers likely will have to endure exceptionally low wages and inhospitable living arrangements while they accumulate industrial skills and achieve productivity levels that in the future will bring them, and their children higher pay and better circumstances.”

What do I think? We’ve created a monster of a fashion, clothing and textile industry. We are over-producing and over-consuming clothes, most of which are made from polyester.  This synthetic fibre is produced from fossil fuels, and you know what that these are doing to the climate…

We need to create jobs, but can’t we create jobs with living wages? Can’t companies adjust their business models to include decent wages for workers?

Image credit: Unsplash / Gift Habeshaw