Panel probes fashion industry: labor rights, environmental impact

Author: Kevin Fye

How do we conceive of solutions to a problem that crosses boundaries invisible to most observers? The nexus of labor justice, consumption, and climate change was explored at a recent event at the Keough School, sponsored by the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights. Justine Nolan, director of the Australian Human Rights Institute and a professor of law at the University of New South Wales Sydney, engaged a student panel on April 13, 2023 to share her expertise and put these complex challenges in perspective.

A systemic problem

Nolan Zoom
Justine Nolan, Australian Human Rights Institute

Nolan opened her remarks by observing that the discussion was taking place on the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, in which a clothing manufacturing facility in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers. That event, Nolan remarked, “brought back memories of what, for many, was thought of as a long lost problem. And the question for us today is, could the same thing happen again now, despite the advances that we've seen in the last decade? And I think the answer is yes, because we still have multiple issues in global supply chains, and particularly in the fashion sector.”

Part of the problem, for Nolan, is the distance between clothing brands and the workers who produce their goods. The complexity and, in most cases, opacity of the supply chains create a state of affairs in which workers have little or no connection to the company who will ultimately profit from their labor. Issues like unsafe working conditions are difficult for them to address. “But particularly what makes fashion workers often more vulnerable is that it's a low skilled environment,” she said. “So you tend to have people who are often of a lower socioeconomic status, more vulnerable migrant workers, vulnerable to these abuses. They're unable, a lot of the time, to speak up and speak out against these issues.”

At the same time, the speed of consumption exacerbates both labor abuses and environmental damage. Nolan noted that globally, an estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed each year, placing pressures on companies, supply chains and, ultimately, workers. As a consequence, manufacturers increase their sourcing to ensure a steady supply for anticipated demand. Often these sourcing patterns are flawed, resulting in an environmental impact that falls on the parts of the world least equipped to absorb it. “There was a recent estimate in Australia that as much as 30% of new clothes are being dumped in landfill by brands, even before they get to market, Nolan said. “Because they've overloaded in anticipation of greater consumption. If it doesn't happen they dump those clothes. And that's then sent to landfill, often in developing countries around the world.”

“The whole human rights mechanism is built on, let's have a global standard, let's have an agreement of that, which is often quite broad, and not necessarily enforceable, and then filter it down to local level."

Multi-tiered solutions

In thinking about solutions to these intricate problems, Nolan is clear that while consumers have important roles to play, individual action alone is not likely to create enough change. Consumers have both constraints and opportunities. “When consumers are asked if they want to buy something sustainable, they say yes. And then you go into the store, and you buy the $10 tee shirt because that's what you have the money for. We all have fast fashion in our wardrobes, so try and wear it out. Try to get fashion to a more realistic rate of consumption. Instead of buying 10 new things, you might buy two things that are going to last longer.”

Student Panel
Student panelists: Raleigh Kuipers, Alyssa Desouza, Briana Chappell

Of greater potential consequence is the pressure that consumers can place on companies and local governments. Nolan cites Nike as an example of a brand that responded to consumer pressure to revamp its corporate responsibility model. In the late 1990s Nike produced shoes in factories in Indonesia that used benzene, a cancer forming chemical, in the production process. When questioned why benzene was not used in other facilities, “Nike’s first response was that it's a factory in Indonesia, they're not our workers. They're not our responsibility, because there was no direct employment relationship,” Nolan remarked. “Now Nike has completely changed in relation to that. They're saying our entire supply chain is our responsibility, so we have to work with those suppliers. We have to improve working conditions.”

While the need for global change is unquestionable, Nolan is guarded in her optimism. “The whole human rights mechanism is built on, let's have a global standard, let's have an agreement of that, which is often quite broad, and not necessarily enforceable, and then filter it down to local level,” she said.  “So I think that in some ways, I have more faith in domestically based local laws and change as something that is more doable. That pressure then helps change governments. I think the global stuff still has to happen, but it's longer term, still at the moment aspirational.”