We know that we need to dramatically slow down fashion. And this season of the podcast has been dedicated to exploring just how we might do that. But what about the people who make our clothes? What happens to garment workers if we’re all consuming far less clothing?
Stella Hertantyo is back in the host seat to explore with Mousumi Sarangi, Fair Wear Foundation’s Country Manager in India and the Regional Coordinator of Gender. Fair Wear Foundation is a nonprofit organization and multi stakeholder initiative, connecting factories, workers, trade unions, NGOs, brands, and other fashion industry influencers.
There’s a lot to unpack in this episode! Let’s get into it…
Links From This Episode:
- Fair Wear Foundation website
- The Industry We Want website
- EP60: Living Wages for Garment Makers with Anne Bienias from Clean Clothes Campaign
- EP12: From the Frontlines: Fighting for Garment Worker Rights in Bangladesh with Nazma Akter
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Read the Transcript From This Interview:
Hello, and welcome back to this week’s episode of the Conscious Style Podcast.
If my voice is new to you, my name is Stella Hertantyo. I’m based in Cape Town, South Africa. And I’m a guest host on the show, as well as a contributing writer at Conscious Life and Style and Conscious Fashion Collective.
It is no secret that we are living in the time of an extreme climate crisis. And we also know that the fashion industry is not innocent when it comes to this. It’s really difficult to pinpoint the fashion industry’s exact carbon footprint due to lack of reputable data. But it is estimated that the industry is responsible for between 2 to 8% of global carbon emissions.
And, fashion is a fossil fuel reliant industry, with over two thirds of materials used in textiles being synthetic, which means they are directly derived from fossil fuels, and specifically derived from crude oil.
But we cannot talk about fashion’s environmental harms without also addressing fashion social harms, because to be honest, they’re entirely inseparable.
For example, communities in the Global South, which include garment production hubs, who have contributed the least to global warming, have also been the first to feel the deadly effects of climate change, and will continue to be the hardest hit.
So while we know we need to embrace degrowth and urgently transition to a slow and sustainable fashion industry to address these extreme environmental harms and the social impacts that come with them, we also cannot ignore that, as it stands, the fashion industry is the source of employment for millions of people around the world, and a vital economic pillar for many countries, communities and families.
Of course, these jobs are extremely precarious, dangerous, and the pay is non livable. And if you want to learn more about this, we discussed it in depth in Episode 60, with Anna Bienias from the Clean Clothes Campaign.
But the fact still remains that the fashion industry employs millions of people. And so with this in mind, the question becomes, how do we advocate and act for a transition to a slow, sustainable, climate friendly fashion future without leaving workers and communities behind and securing sustainable livelihoods?
While this is what is known as a just transition, and it’s based on the idea that inclusion and equity should be at the core of our focus, as we transition to a more sustainable world, in fashion and beyond.
And the short answer to this very complex question is that we have to redistribute wealth and power. And don’t worry, I’m not just going to leave you with the short answer. We are going to be deep diving into this topic during today’s conversation.
In today’s episode, we are exploring exactly what a just transition would mean for the fashion industry and for the lives of garment workers. To explore and unpack this, I am joined by Mousumi Sarangi from Fair Wear Foundation.
Mousumi is the Country Manager in India and the Regional Coordinator of Gender at Fair Wear Foundation. And Fair Wear Foundation is a multi stakeholder initiative advancing common workers rights to safe, dignified and properly paid employment.
Leading the Gender Equality and Inclusion program in Asia and Program Management in India, Mousumi works with various local stakeholders on creating spaces for social dialogue at the factory level. We’ll chat more about social dialogue later in the episode as a really essential tool for welcoming garment worker voices into the conversations around just transition.
In today’s episode Mousumi unpacked what a just transition means in the fashion industry. And in doing so she covers so many incredibly important topics, including:
- What a just transition is and what it means for the fashion industry, including essentially what it will take to get there.
- How we can practically bring workers into this conversation as active participants so that we can ensure a just transition and balanced degrowth what the opportunities are for green jobs in fashion’s future,
- How we can prepare garment workers for these jobs so that they are so that they are included in a meaningful way.
- And how we can all play a part in shifting these power imbalances in the fashion industry and advocating for a worker-led just transition.
This topic is truly so nuanced and complex and Mousumi really helped me to understand that a lot better. And I’m really hoping that this episode does the same for you.
So without further ado, let’s get into today’s conversation. Here,Mousumi is starting us off by sharing a bit about her background and how she came to work with Fair Wear Foundation.
Very nice to be part of this podcast and the conversation with you. Very happy to be here. As you know, my name is Mousumi Sarangi. And I am based out of New Delhi, India. And I’ve been working with Fair Wear Foundation since 2017.
But my journey with the development space started in 2005 when I first started working on the issue of child labor, and education for all in the urban slums of Delhi. I worked there for three years and that was also my first interface with understanding power, patriarchy, and gender discrimination.
That was my view into how the world is than the world probably I thought I lived in. After that, I had a beautiful, inspiring, challenging journey with a Dutch organization, ICCO Cooperation for 10 years, I worked in their programs focusing on inclusion within the church, and looking at sexual reproductive rights of women in conflict areas.
That was, again, a preview into a world that seemed distant, but yet so near a world where you had injecting drug users, you had women who were forced into sex work to keep the plate of food in front of the children, we had women who were facing discrimination in the home, violence in the home from the partners.
Also violence when it comes to the workspace, their workspace of selling vegetables on the street, by the hawkers, by mean police persons, by men in power. And that further widened my understanding of the complexities in which we operate, complexities of what is just what is justice? And how does gender discrimination perpetrate and make achieving these so difficult.
Coming to Fair War, this is very accidental. It wasn’t a pre-thought out journey in my professional career, but very accidental. A phone call with a friend that was already working with Fair Wear, who shared a bit about what Fair Wear was, what they are doing. And at that time they were looking out for an additional human resource for the country team.
That’s how I applied and came into this unknown world at that time, for me. The supply chain and the fragmented garment sector that it is. It has been years of learning, I would say with Fair Wear. Currently I work as the Country Manager for India and the Regional Coordinator for gender.
But the vastness and complexities make it learning like for each of us, I would say, every day. When you have to connect the macro economic policies to what it does to a woman’s life in Cambodia, in Bangladesh, and how do those two interplay is challenging. But also inspiring of how we can connect them and make the lives better of the workers in the production country’s mean. So yeah, that’s in brief my professional journey so far.
I love how your work seems to really connect like these very big, broad systemic issues with people that are experiencing lived experiences that link to them. And perhaps those connections actually help to understand the everyday lives of people much better and especially in the garment space there is like you said, as well lot of connections between gender equality and inclusion to talk about which your background must help you a lot with.
And I think I wanted to chat a bit more about Fair Wear Foundation’s theory of change. And I know they have a shared responsibility approach. What does this really mean? And how do they use us to approach change in the fashion industry?
I’ll start with an example. So as Fair Wear, there are four pieces of core work that we do, one is the brand performance checks for a member brands, audits for their suppliers, capacity building for their suppliers on issues of social dialogue, violence and harassment, labor rights, and complaints handling. So these are the core work of Fair Wear that drive the huge expanse of work that we do today.
Now, when we receive an audit report, and see that there is excessive overtime in a factory, and there has been no premium wage paid for the excessive overtime that workers are doing. The initial response would be the factory is not producing clothes in an ethical manner. When you deep dive, you would see it’s not that simple or linear of a conclusion.
As Fair Wear, we verify that we see that the brand has not given enough lead time to produce the clothes in a manner that would not require excessive overtime, right? They have probably given a lead time of 20 days, which is not sufficient to do it in a very, you know, sustainable manner.
So either they would do excessive overtime, or subcontract a part of their work without the clear legal requirements. Again, we would also then see probably the pricing of the product is so low, that it barely leaves a margin to pay beyond minimum wages.
If we want to change the situation for the worker, we would need multiple actions. Action at the brand level, action at the supplier level, action also at the worker collective level, because the singular worker cannot change the situation. We need a collective for the workers in terms of unions, or other representation. Unions are the best way to represent workers.
So you will need multiple actions at all levels. Also governments play a role. Because if their policymaking regime is not conducive, if the policy regime is not in favor of worker rights, the benchmark will be so low that in the legal framework, you cannot push the brand or supplier to raise it higher or to raise it to a fair level. You need that regulatory mechanism. That’s also fair.
This is the simplified explanation of that shared responsibility.
When it comes to Fair Wear, we envision a global garment industry that contributes to this equal and just society by respecting human rights in all of work.
But the ecosystem in which we work, which is the global garment industry is very fragmented, and also complex. It involves many actors across the globe, which have various levels of power and influence.
So the action or a decision of a small group of people in Europe can have an enormous and potentially crippling effect on a woman or a family in Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, where garments are produced.
Now to reach this goal of respecting human rights in the world of work, each link of the supply chain must bear its proportionate weight, and take up its role to make this change. Workers must take responsibility, governments must take responsibility, brands must take responsibility, suppliers must take responsibility.
Change must happen at all levels. And as Fair Wear, we continuously stress the need for workers to be able to exercise their right to freedom of association, and engage in social dialogue, if we are to achieve this change and shared responsibility.
I love that approach because I think in order to create systemic change, we will need everybody. Everybody’s expertise, everybody’s different levels and circles of influence. And especially when it comes to the fashion industry where It’s so spread across the world, there are so many different actors. So many intricacies and complexities will really need change at every level.
And I agree that that is how justice will come about. And on the topic of justice, I wanted to discuss a bit more about that transition to get there. And we have heard the term just transition used quite a lot in the environmental and climate justice space.
And I was wondering a bit about how a just transition applies to the fashion industry. So could you just share with us a bit about what a just transition is and how this applies to fashion?
Very interesting question. So if we look at where this terminology came from, it originated in the 1970s. And it was the product of efforts of the US trade unionist, Tony Messaggi, to secure the support of environmental studies for the oil, chemical and atomic Workers Union, to tackle the health and safety issues at the Shell refineries.
If you contextualize it to now, it refers to, in my opinion, fair and inclusive processes, that prioritizes the social needs of workers, communities, customers and citizens. To simply putting it, it means that we don’t leave anyone behind. It’s an inclusive transition, a transition that looks at providing decent work, social inclusion, equity for all, so leaving no one behind.
If you look at the global fashion industry, here comes the dichotomy. Just transition has a lens of equity, and inclusive growth, whereas the garment supply chain thrives on power imbalance. You know, that’s where it thrives on. Let me try to explain this imbalance a bit.
There is both vertical power relations in the value chain and horizontal power relations, in the production countries, that is the civic space in which worker voices can be heard, and freedom of association can be exercised.
Vertically, brands exercise power over factories via their purchasing practices, business models. Factories, in their turn, limit workers power and collective voice. Government also to keep the ecosystem and keep the business coming restrict this freedom of association and civic space.
So it is now happening at multiple levels. Even at trade unions that drive worker voices, it’s largely male dominated, resulting in power imbalance between women workers and men who represent or manage them. So ultimately, in decision making in the garment sector, misses out this key input from women. And this is a sector, which has 80% women. 80% women, but mostly in lower paid positions.
So power imbalance is a very fundamental problem. That unless we tried to re-address this, looking at relationships between different actors, and how do we address the root causes, so that there is freedom of — for that we need freedom of association.
To understand these barriers, and to have the agency to ask for this change. Because without that, and I really stress again, that without worker collective voice, workers driving change, the power imbalance will not go so easily.
The power shift also will not go so easily. So worker voices are very critical for achieving just transition in the garment sector in its truest form, not just from an environmental point of view. But in it’s truest –
I completely agree. And I think that stressing the point that a just transition is about addressing power imbalances is really essential when we look at these kinds of topics. And especially because the textile and garment industry does employ millions of people across the world, that work is very precarious and extremely underpaid.
So if we’re going to be thinking about how to transition to something different, something more sustainable, and more just, we also have to really really grapple with how we include those millions of workers in that new narrative or new fashion system.
And you’ve touched on this quite a lot in the previous question. I mentioned in the previous question that the just transition term, for me, I’ve heard it mostly in the climate justice space. And it often has quite an environmental focus. And I was wondering, if you wanted to expand a bit on why we need to focus on labor, and the effects of the just transition on those millions of workers as well.
When we look at sustainable development, we use the term, it’s not about a choice of either or, of whether we want worker rights or whether we want climate adaptation. They don’t exist in isolation.
There is an interconnectedness between the environment, social, and commercial pillar of any industry. Each has its impact on the other, and it cannot function sustainably without any of them. Coming back to your question.
Climate change is a global issue. It’s come to the table a lot many times. But it’s also an issue that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people. And from an apparel and footwear supply chain perspective, the majority of this workforce falls into this vulnerable category.
So addressing climate mitigation and adaptation will require the full embrace of “nothing about us without us.” So workers who often earn below minimum wage struggle to feed families, live in financially precarious situations, must have a voice in every decision that will impact their ability to earn a decent living.
In the short term, and ensure that these decisions are sustainable in the long term, worker voice and participation is key. And it’s interconnected to this whole discourse on climate. Because they contribute to it and they are also affected by it.
To give you an example, when we look at these discussions on the human rights platforms, how can we forget climate? If you’re looking at, say purchasing practices of brands, if their source sourcing decisions are not correct, it will affect both the climate and the worker.
So it’s not either or like I said.
You know, we have to look at this interconnected. There should be no question of why labor? It is integral. So there is no, I think there’s no discussion around why. It should be.
And I would really call upon policymakers and industry, that any frame of action that we plan, whether it’s degrowth, just transition, any of it — it needs to be based on the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights.
That should be your fundamental, as well as the ILO Convention 8796, that looks at worker voices. The guiding framework calls upon accountability of the government and the state to protect, respect, and provide access to remedy. And the conventions provide the legitimate right for workers to call for action towards these state actors and non-state actors.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I think that a just transition can be beneficial to garment workers, but it is about how we approach it, as you were saying.
And you’re also were explaining how it’s essential that we bring worker voices into this conversation so that they’re the driver of change, instead of just recipients of what other people think needs to change.
And to expand on that a little bit more. I was wondering if you could just share about practically how do we bring workers into these conversations as active participants so that they don’t get left behind and that the just transition is worker led?
It’s a very key question. And also a fundamental question of how do we bring in? We have to look at each country’s contexts and how we operate them.
Because some countries have that civic space where we’re voices can be heard. Some have very restrictive spaces, where the right to unionize, collectively organize is not even allowed.
Right here, as Fair Wear, and I want to respond to this question as Fair Wear, that brands and factories have a very critical role in advancing worker rights, particularly those of women workers. Because of power imbalances which I previously described, factories can structurally improve once brands do, with that increased buying and engagement and implementation of the human rights due diligence.
The prioritizing gender equity, their increasing access to remedy, I think we put on the center of the table.
As consumer countries, as brands coming from the European market, we have that power to drive some of these conversations, irrespective of the circumstances. So one way is brands taking up that accountability, especially in the light of the human rights due diligences, which is so strong in Germany, the one coming up in Europe, that speaks about having social dialogue.
And social dialogue can only function and one of the key factors for social dialogue to try is when brands come in to stay, and pay, provides stability of orders. That it creates stability for workers.
If the worker is moving from one factory to another, from one geography to another, the worker will also not have enough leverage or the bandwidth to join unions, the local unions at that.
So it’s very important that the brands take that accountability in advancing worker rights. Involve them in their processes, involve worker voices in their risk assessment, involve worker voices in their scoping.
When they come to audit factories, as brands, and this I’m speaking generally for the ecosystem, look at how women workers are represented in the committees. Do they have a voice? Look at if there is equal opportunities for men and women in the factories in which they source for.
And if it is not there, I’m not saying don’t buy from that factory. Buy from the factory and support the factory make these positive changes.
Because the sector is fragmented, it’s not about if you will get a better factory, most will be similar. We would have to try improvements in what we get.
I think that’s a really great point about social dialogue, and also just really listening to people that are affected by these issues, and taking note of how they affect them.
And I really hope that any brand listening is willing to take that on, and address those kinds of inequities in the supply chain. I think fast fashion has a long way to go for that. But I’m hoping that this blueprint for change is really going to become so widespread that they don’t have a choice but to implement it and take it on.
I think another topic that often comes up in these conversations of just transition is around green jobs and people really questioning what green jobs look like in fashions future, especially for garment workers.
I was wondering, from your perspective, and how can we prepare garment workers for these kinds of jobs? And what opportunities are there for green jobs in fashion’s future?
That’s a very complex question that you put in, you know, and I don’t have a clear cut answer for it. I can share my thoughts around it. So numbers resonate well.
So, if I look at India alone, the textile manufacturing is a market worth $100 billion. It’s also one of the largest employers after agriculture in my country, providing jobs to over 45 million people directly and 100 million people in adjacent factories. And if I expand this conversation to other countries of the Global South, you can guess at the immense footprint that the industry has.
And most of the workers continue in the operate an informal economy with very little social protection, and inadequate remediation. And like I said before, 80% of this workforce is women, who suffer worse working conditions.
So it has the potential, but how do we make this potential equitable for workers? And there is hope; there is opportunity.
If I look at just transition, which has its roots in trade unions, and incorporates a strong commitment to dialogue and to rights in the workplace. Just transition also finds a mention in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is one of the cornerstone international agreements on climate change. And about, I think 197 countries have signed that agreement.
So, if I look at data, again, if we implement the Paris Agreement, which also includes just transition, the concept of leaving no one behind, could create a net gain of 80 million jobs by 2030.
So the opportunities are immense. What we can do to make it or prepare workers for it I would say we have to first prepare the regulatory frameworks. Frameworks that look at businesses from a more responsible and sustainable lens. Governments having policies, which are inclusive of workers, say, for example, human rights due diligence directive established in Europe, the modern slavery act in the UK, Duty of Vigilence in France.
These guidelines constitute an obligation to prevent human rights violations, and environmental abuses — both within the country, in their company, and along their supply chain. So subcontractors, outsourced work, all of it.
If we prepare the framework, which is inclusive, it will have opportunities for workers to still be part of the economy. They will not be run out of the economy.
When we say greener jobs, we don’t say less jobs. We mean different kinds of jobs, more sustainable jobs. We mean equal pay. The fear of saying green jobs as something different, no. Green Jobs mean you make your working conditions better. It doesn’t mean you take the workforce out of the factory, or out of jobs.
If we want to be in a sustainable manner, we will also have to look at it from the lens of sustainability, and not from the lens of fear that would mean that there’s no job. There’s enough evidence to show that their jobs are not going anywhere.
It might be different in how we operate. And we will also be beneficial for workers, they will not have to face hazardous working conditions, they would not contribute to the global carbon footprint. They would earn differently, you know.
So that’s where I come from, when I look at preparation for the green jobs.
First focus on the regulation, and then look at how we include the vulnerable voices in the ground level operation, because they know best. We think they do not know, but they have the agency and the solution to many of the problems which we think that it needs outside intervention. We just need to hear their voices. We just need to be cognizant of the power of their solutions.
Right. That’s really fascinating, and I love that you brought in that mention of the fear based narrative, because I think that is where a lot of people are sitting with at the moment. This fear that a just transition or not to just transition but one that focuses mainly on green jobs is going to really decrease the number of jobs that are available in a world where we do want people to be employed and earning sustainable livelihoods.
And you really shifted the focus in the way that you answered that question on, what do we need to be focusing on instead? Let’s focus rather on how those workers experienced those jobs? Are they sustainable? Are they ethical? Are they just? And I love that you kind of just drove away those fears with with your answer. So thank you for that.
While we’re on the topic of power and redistributing power, and resources more equitably, perhaps you could just share a bit about how Fair Wear Foundation shifts those power imbalances? And then also how beyond that, just how brands, policymakers and even us as citizens, consumers can really play a part in shifting those power imbalances and advocating for worker led just transitions?
For Fair Wear, this has been one of the areas of work for quite some time because we do realize that unless we work on shifting and sharing of power, the fragmentation and the vulnerability will continue.
And sometimes when you look at the power imbalance in the value chain, maybe we’re not talking to the right people. We’re not negotiating with the right people. Now, where does power lie? The power in the supply chain lies primarily with the brand. But the accountability does not lie with the brand. It lies beneath setup of production countries.
So are we negotiating also with the right actors? If our trade union is negotiating with a supplier, which is already weak, and the supplier wouldn’t have the power to make any changes in wages, in better workplaces, so as Fair Wear, we try to influence our member brands, business associations, to work towards an ecosystem that re-addresses this power imbalance, and promotes sustainable industry and freedom of association.
To give you an example, one piece of our work, and this is just one of the many and this doesn’t operate in isolation, to put a caveat first on that. So we have something called the Fair Price Application. This is a tool that facilitates fact-based costing and shared responsibility between the brand and supplier to make sure that prices sufficiently cover the actual labor, especially increase in wages.
This is one example of how we are trying to shift that power. How? Using the application, the supplier can negotiate or have an effective sourcing dialogue with the brand. How using that application, trade unions, the collective voice, can pressure brands that you cannot lower the price below this.
Because it’s fact based costing. It’s not a cost thing that’s based on assumptions. And wages are best negotiated by workers. When people ask what is a fair wage? Or what is the living wage? I think for me, for us, it’s the negotiated wage between the worker collective and the management. That is a fair wage, as a starting point.
That’s where the Fair Wear starts from and a tool like this helps facilitate these dialogues, and move these dialogues to accountability. Because I think as an industry, we’ve had quite some time dedicated to dialogue, and we keep a lot of time on dialogues and conversations. It’s time we shift to accountability. Tie these dialogues to accountability and the Fair Price Application is one such example.
And also through your podcast, invite the audience, to go visit the website of the Industry We Want, an initiative that Fair Wear is part of and driving that looks like this whole interconnectedness between environments, social and commercial aspects, and how do you ship the power balance?
I will not go deep into it but I really encourage you to check out the website of The Industry We Want and gain some insights of how this power imbalance is being attempted to change this imbalance by Fair Wear and others that are a part of this discourse
Amazing We’ll definitely link to that in the show notes.
So we ask this question to every guest that comes on the podcast. And I wanted to ask what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
Like I mentioned in the beginning, that decisions in the Global North affect the life of garment workers, especially women workers in production countries — countries that are heavily dependent on this export income.
So in my vision, in our vision as part of Fair Wear, we see the women worker in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, work in shop floors where they feel free to speak out, unionize and bargain for better working conditions. Which means they exercise their right to freedom of association, and have access to safe, dignified and properly paid employment.
And of course, we cannot do it alone. And I call upon consumers who can play the role of active citizens in this journey. Because when you ask, the brands can’t deny. If you ask for sustainable clothing, if you monitor brands so that they produce sustainably, you shout out to brands that are unsustainable, the world will hear. And the brands will definitely hear because you are the business.
So play your role, actively responsibly and sustainably.
And that’s a wrap for this episode. If you enjoyed this conversation, please rate, review, subscribe, and share this show. You can find us on Instagram @consciousstyle.
For all of the relevant links, and the transcript of this episode, check out the show notes linked in the episode description.
And if you want more sustainable fashion content, subscribe to our free weekly newsletter, The Conscious Edit, at consciouslifeandstyle.com/edit. Subscribers also get access to an exclusive 10 page list of sustainable fashion educational resources as a little welcome gift.
So thank you so much for tuning in today. Next Tuesday is going to be our season finale episode. I’ll be chatting with the team from Fashion Act Now on decentralizing Big Fashion and creating a pluriverse of clothing and textile systems. It’s going to be a very educational and inspiration episode. I’ve already recorded it and I know you’re going to get a lot out of it!
In the meantime, another similar episode to this one that you might like is episode 12 with Nazma Akter of the Awaj Foundation, which is an incredible garment worker advocacy organization based in Bangladesh.
Alright, that’s all we have for you today. I’ll be back in your headphones next Tuesday or I’ll be in your inbox on Saturday if you’re a subscriber. Bye for now!
Mousumi Sarangi is Country Manager India and Regional Coordinator Gender at Fair Wear Foundation, a multi-stakeholder initiative advancing garment workers’ rights to safe, dignified and properly paid employment. Leading the Gender Equality and Inclusion programme in Asia and programme management in India, she works with various local stakeholders on creating spaces for social dialogue at the factory level.
Mousumi joined Fair Wear in 2017, bringing over 12 years of experience from working at Indian and international NGOs, such as the International Cocoa Organisation, in children’s rights and gender and inclusion programs. Throughout this time, she worked with survivors of gender-based violence, communities facing religious discrimination and children survivors of trafficking and forced labour. Confronted with the impact of global power imbalances across supply chains, Mousumi decided to dedicate her professional skills to advancing systemic change.