Sustainability: The year fashion finally faced its social impact

Social sustainability gained momentum this year, but experts say there is much more to be done, especially on garment worker rights in the supply chain, and diversity and inclusion in head offices.

Bella Webb is sustainability editor at Vogue Business. She was most recently editorial associate at Vogue Business and Junior Editor at 1 Granary, and has contributed to TANK, i-D and Fashion Revolution. She has also edited commercial projects for L’Oréal Professionnel and Sloggi. Bella has an MA from Central Saint Martins, where she won the Marc Worth Award for Fashion Journalism.

Dear reader,

I kicked off 2022 with a story about degrowth — a controversial concept that has since become a mainstay of the sustainable fashion conversation.

It’s a fascinating topic, which raises complex questions about what sustainability really is, and how to make it happen. If we cut fashion production by 75 per cent (as many scientists say we must), what happens to the people reliant on fashion for jobs? Is it fair to restrict countries that haven’t had the chance to develop as fully as others? How do we ensure a “just transition” to environmental goals?

Today’s story — my last of 2022 — examines similar themes. Looking back at the defining social sustainability stories of the year, it’s obvious that fashion is still reckoning with the divide between social and environmental impact. Brands have been dogged by allegations of garment worker exploitation, activists have been rallying for legislation to solve it, and the pandemic has left workers throughout the supply chain with a heightened focus on social impact. As we move into 2023, the key question will be: how can fashion finally balance people and the planet, and drive systems change rather than thinking in silos?

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

 

December 29, 2022

    Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ongoing allegations of garment worker exploitation, incoming legislation designed to solve it, and a heightened sense of social impact since the pandemic have prompted an increased focus on social sustainability this year. There has been more widespread recognition that sustainability has to be holistic: environmental impact is essential, but it cannot come at the cost of human lives or livelihoods.

This falls into sharp relief in the necessary but controversial conversation around degrowth, which has become a defining topic of 2022 and one where the balance between people and the planet is especially delicate. Combining degrowth efforts such as circularity and cutting overproduction with the “just transition” will be a key challenge for 2023, experts say.

Social impact was also a focus at the inaugural Venice Sustainable Fashion Forum in September, which highlighted brands with domestic supply chains and those looking to re-shore or near-shore. This included Prada’s ocean conservation programme, Kindergarten of the Lagoon, and Fendi’s efforts to support local craft-based ateliers through its Hand in Hand project. “The dream is to move towards stakeholder capitalism and create a stronger balance between people and the environment,” Prada Group’s head of corporate social responsibility Lorenzo Bertelli said at the time.

The inaugural Venice Sustainable Fashion Forum was held on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. It focused on generating social impact by supporting the local Italian supply chain. Photo: Courtesy of Venice Sustainable Fashion Forum

Social impact also took a more prominent role in brand impact reports. Gucci’s report was released in tandem with a commitment to disability inclusion. Nordstrom’s report highlighted its charitable donations (USD 3.6 million to nonprofits, more than 40000 pairs of shoes donated to children in need through Shoes That Fit, and 145 Black and Latinx-owned brands added to its assortment). Resale platform Thredup included employee health and wellbeing, and diversity, equity and inclusion in its inaugural impact report. However, metrics differ between reports, and experts say there is still no sufficient way to measure social impact. One potential solution to this came from Richemont-owned Chloé in February, which introduced its Social Performance & Leverage tool, evaluating suppliers’ performance on six key indicators: gender equality, living wage, diversity and inclusion, training, wellbeing and job quality.

There’s plenty more work to be done, experts say. Looking ahead to 2023, brands should prioritise human rights in the supply chain, diversity and inclusion in the head office, and put social and environmental impact on a level playing field, with both influencing all sustainability decisions.

“We need to show inspiring stories of social justice,” says Safia Minney, social entrepreneur, author and founder of Global Village and People Tree. “We need much more holistic systems thinking.”

Garment worker rights backed by legislation

Momentum for legislation that protects garment workers has been gathering since 2021, when California brought Senate Bill 62 into play (guaranteeing a minimum wage for garment workers and holding brands accountable, even for violations with third-party partners); and the Bangladesh Accord, the legally binding agreement that was formed after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 and was set to expire in 2021, was renewed and expanded. The new version, called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, has nearly 200 brand signatories and just last week was expanded to Pakistan, with other countries potentially to follow.

The US continued this trend in 2022. In January, a New York coalition led by state senator Alessandra Biaggi alongside Stella McCartney among others put forward the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, hoping to hold major brands accountable for their environmental and social impacts. Among its proposals, brands would need to disclose median wages for workers and what measures are in place to embed responsible business conduct into policies and management systems, with hefty fines for non-compliance. After a months-long consultation process, the proposal re-emerged in November with a sharpened focus. This included joint and several liability (a legal term for a responsibility that is shared by two or more parties to a lawsuit) between fashion sellers and garment workers, meaning garment workers can bring a legal claim directly to brands for lost wages. Supporters are hoping it will pass in the 2023 legislative session.

Wage theft is also a key theme in US senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposed Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (Fabric Act), which was brought to the Senate in May. If written into law, the Act will extend the anti-wage theft principles of Senate Bill 62 nationwide and incentivise near-shoring. Experts told Vogue Business at the time that the Act’s strength lies in its specificity — to the fashion industry, but also to the type of labour abuses it’s trying to solve. “It’s not just about addressing loopholes in US labour laws, but also understanding how to address a fundamental power imbalance within the apparel industry between suppliers and brands,” said Thulsi Narayanasamy, director of international advocacy at the Worker Rights Consortium. “The importance of that just can’t be overstated.”

Despite this, labour rights abuses continue and garment workers’ right to unionise has been backsliding, underlying the need for hard-hitting international legislation. According to campaigning nonprofit Labour Behind The Label, many brands have yet to sign the updated Bangladesh Accord, including Amazon, VF Corp, Gap and Patagonia. This is increasingly urgent, as alleged cases of garment worker exploitation continue to arise. One of the most shocking this year came in October, when a documentary released on UK TV network Channel 4 claimed that workers in Guangzhou factories producing for ultra fast fashion retailer Shein were paid as little as 3p per garment, with deductions taken for mistakes made during up to 18-hour shifts. Shein subsequently pledged $15 million to upgrade its supply chain over the next three to four years, and USD 4 million per year to step up surprise auditing of its suppliers, but experts said this would be insufficient without addressing the overproduction and overconsumption spurring its business model. These are issues that mostly affect women — unsurprisingly, experts say gender equality is lagging in fashion.

Part of the problem was that Shein didn’t have oversight or updated audits of its sprawling supplier base — and supply chain transparency remains a barrier to garment worker rights. Per the 2022 Transparency Index by advocacy organisation Fashion Revolution — which ranks 250 major brands based on the sustainability data they share publicly — the industry is making little progress. On human rights, 96 per cent of brands do not disclose the number of workers currently paid a living wage, and, for the third year running, only 27 per cent have a public strategy for achieving living wages throughout their supply chains. Just 11 per cent disclose their purchasing code of conduct, which can lead to wage theft and wage disruption, as seen during the pandemic. “The data speaks for itself,” Fashion Revolution’s policy and research coordinator Delphine Williot said at the time. “So far, so slow.” The nonprofit launched its Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign in July to try and spur EU legislation. It currently has 79000 out of one million signatures.

Shifting mindsets, promoting social sustainability

Social sustainability starts with the culture a brand creates in its head office.

When the term ‘The Great Resignation’ was coined in 2021, the mass resignations it described were believed to be a symptom of pandemic uncertainty and a search for purpose. Over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This year showed no signs of slowing. The World Economic Forum expects 20 per cent of the global workforce to quit their jobs before the year ends.

Employees across several industries, including fashion, report feeling overworked, underpaid and burnt out. The result has been a rise in ‘quiet quitting’, a phenomenon that took over social media in 2022 and describes people opting out of hustle culture. Experts say employers should create clearly defined boundaries and develop supportive policies to avoid this moving forward. “If the humans in my company are not well, the company is not well either,” said New York designer Mara Hoffman.

In June, over 70 UK-based companies started a six-month trial of the four-day week, which promises to increase productivity, rest time and employee satisfaction, campaigners say. At the halfway point in September, 86 per cent of participants said they would be likely or extremely likely to retain the policy long-term. Some fashion and beauty brands — including Spanish brand Desigual and US fintech startup Bolt — are already rolling the policy out globally.

 Elsewhere, brands including L’Occitane and Lush are investing in personal growth opportunities for employees, hoping to increase retention rates and shift individual values towards sustainability to accelerate organisational change. “Developing our people enables us to attract, retain and develop the best talent,” said Lululemon SVP of people and culture Susan Gelinas. This has proved particularly important to Gen Z employees, who are more likely to prioritise finding belonging, purpose and development in their jobs.

Retention extends to diversity and inclusion policies, too. In 2022, McKinsey found that 35 per cent of white women were planning to leave their jobs, jumping to 46 per cent for women of colour. McKinsey also reported that 60 per cent of people who held chief diversity officer positions in 2018 have since left their roles, creating a gap in leadership and disillusionment within the burgeoning sector. Diversity at the top rungs of fashion is becoming more of a priority. Some companies are starting to make headway, for example by offering opportunities for mid-level talent from underrepresented groups to progress through mentorship and sponsorship schemes – though progress is slow.

Social sustainability starts with the culture a brand creates in its head office.

When the term ‘The Great Resignation’ was coined in 2021, the mass resignations it described were believed to be a symptom of pandemic uncertainty and a search for purpose. Over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This year showed no signs of slowing. The World Economic Forum expects 20 % of the global workforce to quit their jobs before the year ends.

Employees across several industries, including fashion, report feeling overworked, underpaid and burnt out. The result has been a rise in ‘quiet quitting’, a phenomenon that took over social media in 2022 and describes people opting out of hustle culture. Experts say employers should create clearly defined boundaries and develop supportive policies to avoid this moving forward. “If the humans in my company are not well, the company is not well either,” said New York designer Mara Hoffman.

In June, over 70 UK-based companies started a six-month trial of the four-day week, which promises to increase productivity, rest time and employee satisfaction, campaigners say. At the halfway point in September, 86 per cent of participants said they would be likely or extremely likely to retain the policy long-term. Some fashion and beauty brands — including Spanish brand Desigual and US fintech startup Bolt — are already rolling the policy out globally.

Gucci shed light on the challenges faced by disabled employees when it certified as a leading employer of disabled talent through global business disability inclusion network Disability:IN. “One of the key learnings is that anybody can become disabled at any time in their lives. So this work strengthens the opportunities and retention for all employees,” said disability rights advocate and accessibility consultant Sinéad Burke, a member of Gucci’s global equity council, whose new consultancy — Tilting the Lens — is also a strategic partner to the brand.

Seeking a just transition

Experts say that progress made towards the end of 2022 lays the foundations for fashion to address its colonial past and neocolonial present in the new year.

Fashion schools are working to decolonise their curriculums by introducing new classes and challenging the Western perspective often cast over fashion history and who is deemed worthy of inclusion or celebration. “Decolonisation is acknowledging and addressing all of the systemic barriers that were created through the legacy of colonialism and imperialism,” explained educator and consultant Kim Jenkins, founder of Artis Solomon and the Fashion and Race Database. This is important at all stages from education to design and supply chain, if fashion is to become truly sustainable.

One significant win was the agreement of a loss and damage fund at the UN climate conference COP27 in November. Details are yet to be finalised (including the total amount of funding and which countries will benefit), but governments agreed to create a transitional committee to make recommendations on how the fund will work, with a concrete financial structure for the fund to be established by COP28 next year. “Clearly this will not be enough, but it is a much-needed political signal to rebuild broken trust,” UN secretary-general António Guterres said of the announcement. Experts sounded a note of caution. “It has been refreshing to see climate movements centring climate reparations, but we should be careful that this new fund is not a placeholder for a much larger scale transformation,” said Keston Perry, political economist and assistant professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, Massachusetts.

A big challenge for 2023 is how fashion builds this decolonisation mindset into its supply chains, and ensures positive social impact for all involved. “The Global North has neglected its responsibility to the Global South, having exploited its resources and its people, and polluted it with chemicals and waste,” says Minney.

In Morocco, luxury perfume brand Sana Jardin is looking to do just that, upskilling local women to turn waste from flower harvests into essential oils, and training them in financial literacy so they can start their own businesses.

And in France, resale platform Vestiaire Collective moved to ban fast fashion listings from its site, partnering with Ghana-based nonprofit The Or Foundation to find different solutions to textile waste that account for the Global South. The Or Foundation works out of Kantamanto market, the largest secondhand market in Africa, where 15 million used garments arrive from the Global North each week. The devastating social impact for the local people involved in waste management ranges from high rates of debt and emotional duress to health risks such as broken backs and increased exposure to malaria and cholera from the fumes of waste being burnt. “What’s missing from sustainable fashion is a focus on justice and the redistribution of power and wealth,” says The Or Foundation’s co-founder Liz Ricketts.

More from this author:

Can $15 million overhaul Shein’s supply chain?

Meet the Fashion Awards’ 2022 sustainability ‘leaders of change’

What to know about the EU’s crackdown on plastic packaging

 

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