How Can We Protect Fashion’s Most Vulnerable Workers After COVID-19?
25 May

How Can We Protect Fashion’s Most Vulnerable Workers After COVID-19?

Fashion has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. With warnings that around half the world’s workers face losing their livelihoods, the fashion industry is being buffeted by widespread lockdowns, closed borders and predictions that dozens of businesses could be forced to close. Vulnerable workers down the supply chain stand to suffer the most, with many seeing their already insecure employment evaporate, prompting warnings of widespread hardship. So who is responsible? And what can we do to protect these workers?

 

Fashion has a huge impact on society. A $1.5T industry, it employs a massive 80 million people globally, and most of them (around 80%) are women aged 18-35. In factories across some of the world’s poorest countries, unfair and unsafe conditions are still common. In China and Bangladesh, the two biggest manufacturers of fashion, workers earn well below the living wage. Many of us were horrified by the news of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 which killed 1,133 garment factory workers, exposing serious issues in global supply chains.

Since then, there have been some signs of progress. The Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord signed in the wake of the most deadly factory collapse in modern history saw over 100 global fashion brands commit to making factories safe for millions of workers.

Many brands have taken steps to more actively trace, engage with, and report on their suppliers – this year the Fashion Transparency Index showed that 40% of the world’s biggest brands published their 1st tier supplier lists, up from 32% in 2017.

Many brands have taken steps to more actively trace, engage with, and report on their suppliers. But there is still a way to go.

But there is still a way to go. And tragically, the coronavirus pandemic has caused another shock to an already fragile system. Like many industries, fashion is facing unprecedented store closures and revenues are expected to contract by 30% in 2020. In response, brands are scrambling to recover losses by cancelling billions of dollars worth of orders, including those ready to be shipped. Many brands are also demanding discounts and delaying payments to suppliers. This is having a disastrous impact, as suppliers already squeezed by tight margins are having to layoff workers and shut factories putting millions of vulnerable people at risk.

In places like Bangladesh, China, India and Cambodia many fashion workers lack the security of paid leave and basic medical care. Brands owe factories over $5B worth of orders in Bangladesh alone leaving millions of workers vulnerable. As Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Vogue Business, “For them (brands) it’s a question of the survival of the businesses, for us it’s the survival of our 4.1 million workers,” she says. Lost employment directly affects people’s ability to cover basic needs. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to survive. I lost my job, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to buy food” said garment factory worker, Sabina Akhter, to the BBC in Dhaka. Then, of course, there’s the devastating impacts of the virus where the infrastructure for social distancing and healthcare are simply not there. Increasing stockpiles of inventory are becoming safety hazards, with alarming environmental impacts likely to follow.

For them (brands) it’s a question of the survival of the businesses, for us it’s the survival of our 4.1 million workers.

Rubana Huq

A big question is, who’s responsible? There’s a role for regulation like we saw with the Accord, but that will take time. Boycotting supplier countries or blaming factories is not the answer either – they are an important source of employment and economic activity. Ultimately, brands need to take accountability for protecting their workers, in the frontline and all the way down their supply chains. Some brands have acted, at least by committing to pay for orders where suppliers have started work. But more brands should uphold contracts, take responsibility for orders, and pay their suppliers on time. The Workers Rights Consortium regularly updates a list of brands that have committed to paying for orders completed and in production and those that haven’t. Remake’s #PayUp campaign calls out 17 major brands including Gap and Primark that need to “pay for in-production and cancelled orders, rather than abandon their supply chain partners and the women who have kept their businesses profitable for decades”.

However, the issue is much broader than brands not paying up – it’s about the power that brands have over suppliers, to squeeze them whenever they’re in trouble, and the lack of responsibility they take for actions which can destroy people’s livelihoods.

It’s about the power that brands have over suppliers, to squeeze them whenever they're in trouble, and the lack of responsibility they take for actions which can destroy people's livelihoods.

Even if major players like Inditex and H&M commit to pay existing orders, demand in their factories has still been slashed and ultimately layoffs will still have the same dire consequences. Better Buying has surveyed suppliers and made recommendations for ways brands can support their suppliers during the crisis. There’s no doubt that many brands are facing huge challenges right now, but at least in the short term, most have access to government support and capital markets while overseas suppliers and workers face devastation with nowhere to turn. It’s time for brands to step up to work with, not against suppliers, and to support the very makers of our clothes.

Importantly, we all have a role to play too. We have the power to choose brands that put people first, to urge and incentivise brands to change their practices for the better. The shift towards more sustainable shopping was already on the rise, and evidence suggests it will only accelerate after the covid crisis. According to McKinsey and Company, consumer expectations will be heightened for “purpose-driven, sustainable action” from brands. We’re already seeing this at Good On You, with our growing community of conscious shoppers who, more than ever, are looking to get behind brands that are doing good. Big names in fashion are also attesting to this movement, including Jose Neves, CEO of global e-commerce giant, Farfetch. “Consumers will be more attuned to companies that are doing the right thing for their communities and for the planet”, Neves said in a recent update to Farfetch shareholders. Leading sustainable brands are noticing changes too. “Customers and consumers are more ready for this than they ever have been in history.” James Bartle, Founder and CEO at Outland Denim said to Business of Fashion, after seeing a spike in e-commerce and attracting over A$1M in equity crowdfunding since March.

In the future people will be looking at how a brand responded to the needs of the most vulnerable in their supply chain during the crisis as a mark of how serious they are about sustainability.

In the future people will be looking at how a brand responded to the needs of the most vulnerable in their supply chain during the crisis as a mark of how serious they are about sustainability.

At Good On You, we’ve updated our rating methodology to score large brands on how they treated their suppliers during the pandemic.

We also continue to see more and more brands that prioritise the protection and empowerment of workers. They’re not only stepping up during the crisis, but they’re leading the way for positive and enduring change for the rest of the industry to follow. Here are some of our favourites that you can support too.

Outland Denim

Rated: Great
outland denim founder

Outland Denim makes premium denim jeans and offers ethical employment opportunities for women rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia. Find most of the brand's range in US sizes 22-34.

See the rating.

Shop Outland Denim.

ARTICLE22

Rated: Good

Every piece of ARTICLE22 jewellery is locally handcrafted in Laos using recycled materials from Vietnam War bombs, plane parts, military hardware, and other aluminium scraps. The brand embodies the innovation that the fashion industry needs more of—using recycled materials to produce beautiful globally-marketable products, while equipping locals artisans with new skill sets and providing them with a sustainable source of income. ARTICLE22 gives back to clear more unexploded bombs in Laos, support traditional artisans, and donates a proportion of profit  to support community development for workers. The range is available in sizes S-XL.

See the rating.

Shop ARTICLE22.

Conscious Step

Rated: Great
conscious step ethical socks

Conscious Step creates premium fair trade, organic, vegan socks which support great charities. The brand is committed to lasting social and environmental change and every step they take in their production process supports farms and factories with fair wages, safe facilities, and sustainable materials. The socks come in S-M sizes.

See the rating.

Shop Conscious Step.

Armedangels

Rated: Great

Affordable, ethical, and on-trend. Germany’s Armedangels gets a ‘Great’ rating overall from us. The brand covers all the basics for women, men, and kids. Armedangels' quality and long-lasting pieces are made from eco-friendly and certified materials, like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton. The brand also adopted the Fair Wear Foundation Code of Conduct to protect its workers abroad. Its products are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Armedangels.

Shop Armedangels @ thegreenlabels.

People Tree

Rated: Great
woman wearing green people tree dress

Sustainable fashion pioneer and leader People Tree is a ‘Great’ ethical brand and one of our favourites. The brand uses eco-friendly materials and addresses labour risks by adopting the Fairtrade International - Small Producers Organisations Code of Conduct.

See the rating.

Shop People Tree @ thegreenlabels.

Shop People Tree.

Birdsong

Rated: Good
woman wearing organge birdsong dress

Birdsong is a boutique label producing gorgeous womenswear. Its clothes are handmade in London by knitters and seamstresses earning above the London living wage. The business is built on a philosophy of fairness and authenticity, promising customers “no sweatshop, no photoshop”.

See the rating.

Shop Birdsong.

No Nasties

Rated: Great

Another leader when it comes to ethical fashion, No Nasties makes simple and stylish clothing from Fairtrade organic cotton in India where they are actively working to grow the ethical consumer market.

See the rating.

Shop No Nasties.

Shop No Nasties @ Made Trade.

For further reading, see ‘How the Fashion Industry is Helping During the Coronavirus’ and ‘How Sustainable Fashion Brands Are Stepping Up During the Crisis’.

Editor's note

Feature image via Outland Denim, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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