Amid the era of fast fashion, consumers, especially the youth, have developed a new and growing awareness. They are willing to pay a higher price for greener, ethical, and long-lasting garments extending support to counter the exponential climatic and social impact of the fashion industry. The textile industry is responsible for 10% of the global greenhouse emissions . In a society that is always following the latest trends, garments are produced on a cost-cutting scale economies model, as well with materials that are harmful to the environment and to our health, also exploiting underpaid labor. The social and environmental consequences of the choices of the modern consumer are no longer unknown. We are aware of the exploitation of workers by leading global fashion brands since the 1970s. The factories where the garments are produced have working hours that violate the labour laws, and workers are usually underpaid. The pressure on manufacturers often amplifies into intimidation, harassment, coercion and violation of workers’ rights. With the advent of uncontrolled fast fashion, this phenomenon has become increasingly frequent and dangerous, leading to the tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on the 24th of April 2013 . In this event 1129 textile workers lost their lives because of the collapse of the building producing clothing for famous fast fashion brands. From that moment, a growing mobilization began to promote greater transparency and accountability in the clothing supply chain. Many countries and international market players have been taking legal measures to ensure greater protection of workers and the environment through laws, certifications and reports.

 

As early as the 1970s, and more precisely from 1974, multi-fiber agreements were stipulated between developing countries, the United States and the then European Community. The goal behind these restrictions was to limit the damage of uncontrolled exports of textile products and prevent their effect on the domestic industries of developing countries. This legal protection lasted only until 1995. However, following the events of Rana Plaza, there has been a renewed interest and a new awareness in the ethics of fashion. Following the tragedy, some global brands got together to sign the agreement on “Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”. This legal agreement lasted for 5 years, and was subsequently renewed for another 8 years; was designed to improve standards in the textile manufacturing sector and to ensure greater safety at work. This is achieved through independent factory inspections, the establishment of elected health and safety committees in factories across the country and direct education plans regarding employee’s health risk prevention regulations. On the same lines of fashion ethics, we find California’s “Transparency in Supply Chain Act” through which the state made it mandatory in 2012 for every clothing store on its territory, to affirm its commitment to protecting workers by ensuring greater transparency and reliability. Another important regulation was the “Modern Slavery Act” introduced in 2015 in the United Kingdom. According to this law, British companies with annual revenues exceeding 36 million pounds must attest to the absence of forms of slavery and trafficking in human beings. Also, France introduced the “Loi sur le devoir de vigilance” in 2017, which provides that companies with headquarters in the national territory and more than 5,000 employees in France and 10,000 worldwide must publish their surveillance plans to prevent serious violations of human rights, fundamental freedoms and the safety of workers and the environment.

 

At the same time, from an environmental point of view, the world of design and fashion s urged to respond to new production criteria, including the sustainability of garments. Consumers, especially the younger ones belonging to the Millennial and Gen Z generation, have demanded greater transparency, the use of innovative and environmentally friendly materials and more durable garments. The fashion industry, responding to these increasingly pressing demands, has introduced products derived from organic, vegan and recycled materials made with a less harmful process, which requires less water and avoids the use of pollutants.
For instance, Greenpeace joined in promoting awareness of the environmental impact of our garments. In 2011, in the “Dirty Cloths” report, the NGO denounced the use of dangerous substances used in the production of major clothing brands. In fact, these substances are released into the environment after washing the garments and once dispersed in water, are transformed into nonylphenol, a toxic compound capable of altering the human hormonal system even at low concentrations.

Although major steps were taken towards material certifications and the laws that promote the continuous fight against all forms of modern slavery, it is important to recognize that we are still far from a satisfactory result. Both at the European and global level, there are too few laws and these are mainly addressed to big brands with scarce and sporadic measures.

By Ingrid Garosi

Ingrid Garosi is a recent joint master graduate in European Studies at the University of Uppsala and University of Strasbourg. She is a project manager and research advisor in European fundings and European projects at the University of Bologna.

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