The challenge for workers

Moments of crisis throughout history have served as catalysts for change. Covid-19 represents the largest challenge the global fashion industry has faced in a lifetime.

Prior to Covid-19 there were obvious cracks in the existing fashion system. Now, the pandemic has forced these cracks wide open, exposing areas of social and environmental exploitation that the industry has been ignoring for far too long. We need to call on the industry to change.

At the start of 2020, as the pandemic began to snowball, there was a growing fear that progress made in social and environmental sustainability would halt or, worse, move backwards. In times of economic downturn, things like corporate social responsibility are often the first to go. With ‘business critical’ decisions ruled as essential to keep companies afloat, it has become clear that work in the areas of traceability, worker empowerment, living wages and climate action, amongst many others, has been destined to take a back seat for the foreseeable future. This is unacceptable.

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs recently reported that the impacts of Covid-19 have reversed decades of progress across the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our research tells us that this is true. Therefore, it’s time to do whatever we can to regain lost ground.

Throughout 2020, the world has woken up to the intersecting and systemic crises of climate change, race relations and gender inequality. These issues are deeply embedded in the fabric of the garment industry. But we believe that disruption has the power to make a massive difference. The overwhelming challenge faced by the global fashion industry in 2020 is also an opportunity. An opportunity to pause and reflect on the shortcomings of the system. An opportunity to boldly consider a different future, and to rebuild towards a more just and sustainable industry. The fashion industry is broken, but we have a part to play in fixing it. We can make a difference to the wellbeing of millions of garments workers and their families. To move away from a system that disempowers and perpetuates harm means that fashion companies can no longer do business as usual. They must commit to change. Fashion companies must commit to build back better, for workers and the world.

This is what we’ve been pressing for with each Ethical Fashion Report. We’ve been proud to participate in the progress so far, but there’s still a very long way to go. This journey doesn’t stop when the pandemic is over. It stops when we have a fashion industry that empowers and doesn’t exploit, that preserves and doesn’t destroy. A fashion industry driven by greater values of connection and care.

Industry response

Our research under this Commitment has been about understanding the goals that fashion companies have for their supply chains, and how Covid has changed those goals.

We’ve broken the results into two categories. The first is social improvement strategies under ‘workers’. The second is environmental impact strategies under ‘the world’. We’re glad to say that 59% of companies showed us that they have a strategy to build back better for workers, and 49% for the world.

Of the companies that showed us they could meet this Commitment, an overwhelming majority also showed us that they were committed to continuing progress on the goals that they had set before Covid: 44 companies for ‘workers’, and 41 companies for ‘the world’. A smaller number—18 companies for ‘workers’ and 16 companies for ‘the world’—identified new future-facing commitments made in spite of the impact of Covid. It’s likely a number of things are influencing this.

We’ve seen year after year as we’ve produced the Ethical Fashion Report that ethical awareness in the industry has grown. Now, the biggest gap lies between what companies are promising and what they’re actually delivering. If past, present and future commitments are being affirmed and put into action amidst a crisis, this is a beacon of hope for the future of the industry.

We’re excited to say that this is a good starting point, and we believe that all positive efforts should be welcomed. But the current pace of change is simply too slow. In the face of Covid-19, we need to move faster towards a better way of protecting garment workers and producing clothing.

Our data on new Commitments might reflect the fact that this research took place early in the pandemic and that the initial focus on crisis management may have limited the ability of companies to re-adjust sustainability goals in the first half of the year. We hope that, as the situation stabilises and companies start to look further into the future, they’ll seize the opportunity to build a better world for garment workers.

A report by McKinsey recently stated that Covid-19 could create higher consumer expectations for meaningful and sustainable action, and an aversion to business models that don’t meet these expectations. With this in mind, building back better will become even more essential for companies to maintain the trust of consumers. Investing in social and environmental improvement will not only benefit workers and the world, but will ensure that companies adopt business models that are sustainable over the long term.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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