What will it really take to ensure living wages for garment makers across the fashion industry?
It’s a big question but in this episode, Conscious Life & Style contributing writer and Conscious Style Podcast guest host Stella is interviewing the Living Wage Coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, Anne Bienias to explore.
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What will it really take to ensure living wages for garment makers across the fashion industry?
It’s a big question with a complex answer. But in this episode, Conscious Life & Style contributing writer and Conscious Style Podcast guest host Stella is interviewing the Living Wage Coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign to explore.
Hello and welcome back to this week’s episode of the Conscious Style Podcast. If you haven’t heard my voice around here before, my name is Stella Hertantyo and I am the guest host on the show, as well as a contributing writer at Conscious Life & Style and Conscious Fashion Collective.
Now, let me ask you a question.
Did you know that it takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five fashion brands to earn as much as a garment worker in Bangladesh earns in her entire lifetime?
Millions of people work in textile, clothing, and footwear production around the world. And yet, the vast majority are not paid enough to fulfill their basic needs.
In fact, no major clothing brand pays its garment makers in Asia, Africa, Central America, or Eastern Europe enough to break out of cycles of poverty. It is this reliance on low, non-livable wages that upholds the fast fashion industry.
So a just and sustainable fashion future is really not possible without holding fashion billionaires accountable and advocating for living wages for garment workers that addresses extreme income inequality.
As Orsola De Castro of Fashion Revolution says, “we need to demand quality, not just in the clothes we buy, but in the lives of the people who make them too.”
To unpack this further, in today’s episode, I am joined by Anne Bienias, who is the Living Wage Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Anne that is currently based in Cambodia. And she is involved in various campaigns including the Pay Your Workers campaign, and the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign, which is a campaign demanding living wage legislation across the garment, textile, and footwear sector. She also closely follows minimum wage struggles in clothing production countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Cambodia.
And in today’s episode, Anne shares why living wages are an essential element of a more just slow fashion future. She covers so many insightful topics, including:
- Why paying garment workers low, non-livable wages is what underpins fast fashion.
- What a living wage is, how they are determined, and how this differs from a minimum wage,
- Whose responsibility it should be to ensure that living wages are paid,
- The most effective way to hold brands accountable to pay living wages without jeopardizing the livelihoods of workers.
- And why paying garment workers higher wages doesn’t necessarily mean that they will lose their jobs.
So let’s get into today’s conversation. Here, Anne is starting us off by sharing her background and how she came to work with the Clean Clothes Campaign.
So my name is Anne. I work with Clean Clothes Campaign. And yeah, my journey started in 2014, I think when I was in Cambodia, doing research for my master’s thesis, and then garment workers started protesting in Phnom Penh demanding higher wages.
And these protests were labeled political, and very soon, the government in Cambodia cracked down on workers who were actually peacefully protesting. And I worked with the union in Cambodia at the time, so I witnessed everything from very close by.
And this union is a member of the Clean Clothes Campaign network. And that’s actually how I learned about the CCC, Clean Clothes Campaign. So when I finished my studies, I actually immediately knew, like, this is where I want to work.
Wow, that’s amazing. So I love that your journey began right on the ground at the beginning of all of this action, and that you kind of made your way to where you are now as the living wage coordinator since your studies.
And I was wondering if we could chat a bit more about those issues in the fashion system when it comes to garment workers because garment workers are indispensable to the functioning of the global garment sector. Yet, so often, their labor is both underpaid and undervalued in so many ways.
And I remember Sandra Niessen from Fashion Act Now, she describes these garment production hubs as fashion sacrifice zones, which I think is a really great description, because it describes how fashion or fast fashion specifically treats these communities as disposable for the sake of growth.
So I was wondering, from your perspective, how has the reliance on low non-livable wages really upheld the fast fashion industry?
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. From my perspective, I think poverty wages are a characteristic of fast fashion.
But since wages only make up a very small percentage of the price that garments brands pay factories. They are probably not the only components that is undervalued or not priced correctly.
So yeah, when I speak about pricing, I think there are a lot of systematic issues with regards to pricing. And by pricing, I mean, how brands determine what price they want to pay for a specific amount of pieces of clothing.
So for one order, so the price of labor, so yeah, the money that will go to workers eventually, should be based on a very serious and realistic estimation of how much time it takes to produce one piece. We call that labor minute costing.
But yeah, what we see often is that instead brands usually pay like a lump sum to their suppliers. And in this lump sum, costs for material usually makes up the largest part of this lump sum. And wages are only a very, very small part of that.
If you’re buying a piece of clothing, and you want to get an idea of how much a worker was paid to make that piece of clothing, I think a really good rule of thumb is to understand that usually the price that a brand paid to the factory, is 25% of the retail price.
So if you’re buying a t-shirt for $20, you can sort of, I think it’s a good estimate to think that $5 was paid for that t-shirt. And then from that $5, between 5 and 12% of that price of that $5 is usually reserved for labor costs.So yeah, that means that roughly 25 to 60 cents from your $20 T-shirt will go to factory workers.
And in negotiations between brands and their suppliers, it really seems like every penny counts. Like they really will bargain to the until they get absolutely the lowest price.So it’s all about efficiency and not so much about labor rights or fair prices.
So yeah, for me, in that regard, I think low wages are kind of a symbol of the fast fashion industry. Where, yeah, it seems much more important to have the latest styles in stores as fast as possible, rather than thinking about whether or not your business is violating any human rights.
Yes, totally. That was just really, really interesting what you were saying about how little even if we use a t-shirt as an example of that money in the pricing actually goes to the garment workers.
And I think this race to the bottom, chasing efficiency and speed and the latest styles, the true cost of that is really shouldered and the burden of that is really shouldered by many different communities and common workers are a big part of that, because their labor is not valued in the way that it should be when it comes to our clothing.
So I really love how you explained that. Are there any other systemic issues that you wanted to mention, when it comes to pricing? You said there were quite a few that come to mind?
I think when it comes to pricing, I think, I don’t know, because in my work, I’m mostly focused on wages. But just thinking that a supplier has to make, usually costing or pricing is done in a way that there’s not a very clear breakdown of this much money has to go there, this much money has to go there.
But of course, for the supplier, some things just cost what they cost. So the electricity bill of the factory will be what it is, or the water bill that they have to pay. So there are only a few things that they can play around with a little bit. So one would be their own margin. But of course, they also want to make a bit of profits. So yeah, it’s unlikely that that is what they’ll reduce.
So I think the whole problem is that when pricing is done, brands are not really looking at what things actually cost, but they only think about what they want to pay. And that is just as little as possible.
And I think the problem is that if a supplier declines an order from a brand, a brand will just go elsewhere, right? Because there’s always a supplier who will accept that order, or who will do it for an even lower price.
So yeah, I think international competition, obviously plays a big role here and is very problematic when it comes to fair pricing. Because it’s such a competitive industry.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think that segues us really well into chatting a bit more about, like you said, your work with living wages since you are the Living Wage Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign.
And I think this term ‘living wage’ is often heard in conversations about creating a more just fashion system. And I was wondering if you could just help us understand what a living wage is and how they’re determined and how this differs from what we also hear about often, which is minimum wage.
Yeah, of course, I think this is again, a very interesting question, because I think originally, a minimum wage was actually supposed to be a living wage.
If you look at very early references to what defines a minimum wage, for example, in the first ILO documents referring to a minimum wage, that definition seems fair, pretty much the same as what we as Clean Clothes Campaign currently defined as a living wage.
Which is a wage that is enough to cover basic needs for a worker and their dependents. And it should be earned within a standard working week. At CCC, we always add that a standard working week should not be more than 48 hours.
And I think there’s also, in general, an agreement about what basic needs are. So housing, food, enough money to pay for school fees, or medical fees, some money to buy clothes or other necessities, and then, of course, some money to pay for transportation or nowadays also, I think communication should be in there. And then a small amount to keep for savings.
So that’s what a living wage is, but I think originally a minimum wage was supposed to be that. And I think the best way to determine what a living wage is for garment workers, should first of all always involve garment workers.
So any study or research into how much does a garment worker need in this place or that place? I think there’s no way to understand what a worker needs if you don’t involve them in this process.
So CCC recently actually worked on its own estimation for European production countries for what a living wage should be in those countries. We used the Asia Floor Wage Alliance methodology for that.
And but for this methodology, we usually start by doing food basket research. So basically, literally go into the market and buy what you would buy if you were to have a nutritious diet, and then see how much you spend for one person plus their dependents.
So then, after that, you have to determine what percentage of the household income is spent on food. And there is a whole theory about this. It’s called Engel’s Law. And that says that usually in lower income countries, this percentage is higher. So yeah, maybe you can imagine that a very poor family would spend maybe up to 50, or 60% of their income on food.
So that means that they have only 50 or 40% left to spend on other things. And the higher the household income is the lower that this percentage will get. So as soon as you determine that percentage, then you can, based on the food basket, determine how much 100% would be. And then that would be your living wage.
But now I went a bit quickly. But of course, there are also some political choices that you have to make in such a calculation. For example, we argue that a living wage is never an individual wage. It’s not a wage for one person, but a family wage or a wage for a worker and their dependents.
And another choice that you have to make very early on, if you want to start calculating how much living wages, again, is a little bit technical, and maybe seems a bit funny, is how many calories a worker needs to perform their job. Because this has quite big implications for the food basket. As the food basket is the starting point for the whole calculation, it’s actually quite important.
So for example, if you imagine that a specific diet costs $100, if we count on 2200 calories per day per person, but it might cost $130 if we count on 3000 calories per person, this adds up quite quickly, of course, if it’s multiplied by 30 days. So these are some of the choices that you have to make if you want to estimate what the living wage is.
That was really interesting. And I liked how you explained the breakdown. Because I think understanding how living wages are trying to be quite a holistic measure of what the type of wage necessary to live a good life is really interesting when you hear what is taken into account in that.
And I love what you said that it’s really important for garment workers to be involved in that process, because at the end of the day, they’re the only ones who are going to know how much they need to be able to provide for themselves and their families and dependents in a sustainable way. So I really like how you broke it down.
Yeah, I think what is tricky, actually for myself, coming from a European country, a Western European country, I think a lot of us there think about minimum wages in that old way, right? The way that it was originally meant. And I think for garment brands, often coming from those same countries, I think they regard minimum wages mostly as a legal requirement.
So for them, it’s all about abiding by national laws, which means that being the legally mandated minimum wage is enough. They’re not violating any laws; they’re not breaking any rules.
So that’s also why very often you’ll see that in brand sustainability reports or other publications that they put out, they will report quite proudly about the fact that they’ve paid 100% of their workforce the local minimum wage.
Which completely you know, they seem to be forgetting or ignoring that the minimum wage in those countries have been kept at a poverty level, basically on to attract their investment.
So I think that’s really tricky, and therefore, it’s really important that people understand the difference between a minimum wage and especially what a minimum wage might be in your country where, you know, a minimum wage might actually be at the living wage level.
But in most garment production countries, if there is a minimum wage, it’s not a living wage level. So I think that’s really important to realize.
I agree. And I think that that context is so important for brands to look into, because it differs so much from country to country. And even like you were explaining about the food basket, food costs and cost of living differ so much from place to place.
So really wanting to take the time to understand those differences is such a key part in this process. And I love how you explained that. I think that there is so much around brands trying to avoid these conversations and topics and just trying to scrape by with the minimum requirements like you were saying with the law.
And that’s probably another really great reason why, advocating for living wages to be incorporated in legislation, as we’ll talk about a bit later is really important at this stage.
So one thing I wanted to touch on, as on the topic of brands, avoiding responsibility to an extent is this complex use of subcontracting agreements, that often obscures responsibility and helps brands to, in a way, avoid taking responsibility for paying living wages.
And I was just wondering if you could share a bit about how these complexities make it easier for brands to avoid taking responsibility — and then whose responsibility should it be to ensure that living wages are paid?
Yes, I think you’re right, that subcontracting indeed is a very big issue in the industry. Probably also in other industries. And this issue is, of course, very much related to the lack of transparency in the supply chain.
So that means that us as consumers are not really able to know for sure where the products that we buy in the shop, where they’ve been made, by whom, how much these people were paid, and all of that.
I’m really not an expert on subcontracting issues. But basically, it comes down to the fact that when a brands place an order, it sometimes it’s not produced by the supplier that the brand has a contract with, but sometimes by a factory that is owned by the same company, or it might be that this other factory is are owned by a family member of the original supplier.
So it’s very illegal and behind the scenes. And oftentimes, these factories — so the subcontracting factories — they don’t always have an export license. So that means that for example, they also won’t be audited by big auditing firms.
And I also really don’t mean to suggest that audits of exporting factories happen in a very good way, or give a very realistic view of what’s happening in that factory. Especially if you think about Ali Enterprise, for example, a factory in Pakistan that burned down completely to the ground. And that factory was audited just a few days before that happened.
So I’m not saying that auditing is, is the best. But what we hear from our partners — so unions on the grounds in production countries — is that subcontractor factories, what’s happening there is just really not okay.
So these factories, the subcontracting factories, often do not appear on supplier lists that brands publish. Workers who work in these factories often do not know what brands they are producing for.
And also, subcontracting is often not visible on shipping information that we can find. So there it will simply say because there we have the contract information. So they will simply say that an order came from the factory where the brand placed the order.
So yeah, it’s very hard to detect. And that’s why this still remains one of the biggest issues in the supply chain because also brands do not always know, for sure, if an order was actually made in the factory where they thought they placed the order.
At the same time, Clean Clothes Campaign thinks it’s still unfair for brands to blame suppliers for low wages. I think I said that earlier during this interview that brands really have pushed the price of production so low that suppliers can really not afford to pay workers a living wage. Because brands will only choose suppliers that commit to really fast [production] and really low pricing, which places a lot of pressure of course on working conditions.
Since brands are on top of the supply chain, they should ensure that they pay their suppliers enough to enable them to pay living wages to their workers. So I think a very good first step for brands would be to really understand how much more they would need to pay in order to make this possible.
So then again, we go back to pricing that we talked about earlier. A brand should really understand how much time does it take to produce one piece of this product that I’m ordering? And then how large is my order? So how many minutes in total are needed to make this order, and then see how much is a living wage so that you can determine what one minute of labor would cost.
Then make sure that you pay this price to your supplier, so the supplier can pay workers a living wage. This is really the responsibility of brands. Also, if you think that, think about the fact that brands are producing and selling more clothes than ever.
Like this number is still increasing and increasing year after year, and are making huge profits even during the pandemic, I think there’s absolutely no one else responsible for paying workers living wage.
Yeah, I totally agree. And I think like you said, it’s almost the brand that has to set the precedent for a lot of the actions that take place in the rest of the supply chain. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones deciding the cost of the garment, and how many corners they’re going to cut to get there. So I definitely agree that action needs to come from brands.
And I think that’s why they’re also struggling to get action because of how many as we discussed earlier, how many ways they try to avoid responsibility.
In your experience, what has been the most effective way been in to hold brands accountable to pay a living wage? Without also jeopardizing the lives of workers, because I know that’s also a big risk in this kind of work and advocacy?
Yeah, you’re right, that’s definitely a large risk, I think. Well, currently, it’s very difficult to hold brands accountable to pay a living wage. And that is simply because I think we mentioned that earlier already. There is a lack of a legislative framework to put this in.
Even though payment of living wage, or receiving a living wage for labor is a human right, it’s often not embedded in local labor laws, for example.
So I would say legislation is one of the most effective means or would be one of the most effective means to hold brands accountable. Also, because it creates a level playing field because it would apply to all brands.
So like I said earlier, brands currently do not feel like they are violating any rules, if they’re not paying a living wage. You cannot really take brands to court, if they’re not doing that.
Plus, you know, no brand is doing that. So why should one brand do it? You know, that’s a little bit how they feel.
And I think, this is really not an issue only with regards to wages, but also in other areas like safety in the workplace. So really, when you think about it, it’s insane, that it’s still possible for companies that are worth billions of dollars to operate in unsafe factories in small back streets in Dhaka or wherever.
What is interesting is that there are more and more brands who publicly state that they are committed to paying a living wage in the future. Sometimes in the near future and sometimes in the very, very far future. But more often than not, they really don’t have a very clear action plan. Or at least not a public action plan on how they want to achieve that.
So very often, then, when we ask brands about this action plan, they often say that they get stuck in endless discussions about what a living wage is, how much it is, or how they should deal with situations in which they are not the only buyer in a factory.
These brands are hardly ever the only brand buying from a specific factory. Therefore they argue that sector-wide measures are needed instead of individual brands’ action. I think that might actually be one of the very few things that CCC agrees with. But we still think that individual brands can make a difference.
But yeah, I think brands will likely not take action if they don’t feel like they need to because of course it costs money to pay workers a living wage. Don’t worry, though, this is definitely something that brands can afford.
But yeah, if they feel like no one cares, like if they feel like consumers don’t really care about how much they are paying their workers, then I don’t think it’s very likely that they’ll take action. So yeah, I think the first step would also be that we’ll show that we care.
Yeah, I completely agree and think, am I correct in saying that there are no big, like fast fashion brands that are currently paying living wages?
That’s correct. There are maybe a few small brands that are paying a very small percentage of their workforce a living wage. But none of the big fast fashion brands that you will be thinking of are doing that.
There are brands that, for example, I remember that H&M, a few years ago in their sustainability reports, I forgot the exact claim but they claimed that in Bangladesh, they had paid all their workers a specific percentage more than the minimum wage.
Which again, if you’re coming from that sort of a Western or European perspective, then you’re like, oh, more than the minimum wage that’s really good. And I’m not saying it’s not good, because anything closer to a living wage obviously is better than less.
But if you think about the fact that in Bangladesh, the minimum wage only gets revised once every five years. So that means that inflation is quite high year after year, that actually the purchasing power of workers decreases year after year.
And the minimum wage is so unbelievably low in Bangladesh, and then to imagine that it’s not just a worker who depends on that, but also her family, most likely or other dependents.
And then to be so proud about the fact that you’ve paid workers, I don’t know, a few bucks more, I think that’s almost a little bit embarrassing, and really not something to be proud of as a rich company who is making a lot of profit.
Definitely, definitely. Because the profits are still unbelievably high, there is no sign that those are going to be compromised. So it really is completely mind-blowing, that this still occurs.
But I think, on a slightly more hopeful note, as we were mentioning earlier, around what the promise of legislation, the role that legislation around living wages can play in just ensuring that brands are all held accountable and are held accountable in the same way is really important.
And as you said also, we all have a role to play in that. Because if we don’t care, then brands won’t care, of course.
So I think this is a really good time to chat a bit about the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign, which is demanding living wage legislation across the garment, textile, and footwear sector.
Could you tell us a bit more about this campaign, and also how you’ve collaborated with workers to co-develop global campaigns on achieving systemic goals, like payment of living wages?
Yeah, sure. So the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign is tied to a European Citizens Initiative, which is a tool available to all European citizens actually, to propose legislation directly.
So how this works is that you can hand in a proposal for specific legislation and once this is approved by the European Commission, you get one year to collect 1 million signatures from EU citizens.
If you then succeed in that, then the commission has to have at least one meeting with the group that made the proposal to discuss the contents of the proposal. So it’s a very interesting kind of direct democracy tool. But yeah it’s very interesting that we’re trying it now.
So our proposal obviously focuses on living wages for garment workers, and for all workers in supply chains of brands that are importing their products onto the EU internal markets. While the EU is one of the biggest importers of cheap clothing. Almost all garment brands are importing into the EU, so basically, all brands would be covered by our proposed legislation.
In the legislation,m brands would be required to conduct specific due diligence regarding living wages. So they would be required to implement and monitor time-bound action plans on the payment of living wages. And if they fail to do so then the brand will be subject to penalties or fines.
I realized that terms like due diligence or maybe a bit technical. But basically, it comes down to the fact that brands have to create a specific action plan, what I was referring to earlier on how they will ensure that workers in our supply chain receive a living wage. And then start implementing that plan, regularly update on how they’re progressing, and what issues they’re facing.
In the legislation, we’re also asking that they base specifically a lot of attention to higher-risk groups. So women workers, migrant workers, home-based workers, and to make sure that, that they are also benefiting from this. If brands fail to do this, then yeah, because it’s binding, because it’s legislation, there will be a penalty or a fine.
And then with regards to how we collaborate with workers, usually through unions, because workers are hopefully over represented by strong unions in their country. So actually, all the work that CCC does, originates from casework that we do.
Casework refers to specific violations happening at the factory-level that are usually reported to us by unions that are members of our network. So, of course, most of the cases that are reported to us can largely be categorized in a few categories. Think about unpaid wages, unpaid severance, safety issues, issues related to gender-based violence, and so on.
So the approach that CCC has, always actually had, is twofold. So on the one hand, we focus on this case work. So we work with the groups on the grounds. So hopefully resolve the issues that are happening in this factory.
And at the same time, because we see the same kinds of cases happening again and again, we also often try to come up with a more systemic solution that will hopefully prevent the same cases from occurring again.
So for example, this can be proposing specific legislation or binding agreements like the Bangladesh courts, or the binding agreement that we’re currently working on in our Pay Your Workers campaign. So usually we do these two things. So the case work and more systemic..
Amazing, yeah. I love that it starts at a grassroots level, and that the casework also allows you to really incorporate the experiences and lived experiences of garment workers in those factories
And I know that the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign needs 1 million signatures, like you said. So I’m also going to make sure that we put the link to the website where people can add their signature in the show notes.
Great, thank you. That would be great. And maybe an important side note to that is that it’s indeed EU citizens. So anyone with an EU passport so you don’t have to live in the EU, you can live outside of the EU as long as you have an EU passport.
That’s great. That’s a good note to include in there. But yes, I think even if we’re not EU citizens, we can all still play a role in the campaign in spreading the message.
And you touched on working with realistic and accurate data from the ground, on a grassroots level. And I was wondering, just if you could chat a bit more about this importance of transparent data on wages as a campaign tool and how this transparency really does influence accountability?
Yes. So yeah, I think I said this earlier already. But as a consumer, it’s impossible or almost impossible to know much more about where your piece of clothing is coming from, apart from the label in the back that mentions the country where the item was produced.
So if you want to know more, like for example, where exactly, by whom your clothes were made, it’s very difficult to find out. But most brands nowadays publish a list of their suppliers. Still, not all brands are doing that. But most are.
So this means that if you see in your label that your jeans were made in Pakistan, you can usually find online a list of suppliers that the brands works with in Pakistan. But of course, this still doesn’t tell you much else. So you still don’t know, is this factory safe? How much do workers earn in this factory? Can workers join the union if they want to? How about maternity leave and maternity rights? These are all things that you don’t know.
So a few years ago, we started working on a project called Fashion Checker, which is an online database in which we’re trying to collect two different kinds of data. So on the one hand, we’re serving brands, and we ask them about their transparency and living wage policies and standards.
On the other hand, we interview workers about how much they earn and how many hours they work for this wage. And by combining this information, it becomes possible to see, okay, this brand is producing in that factory in Pakistan. Hey, and we also interviewed a worker in that factory, who says that they’re earning X amount of money per month.
But it’s interesting, because this brand says that they care a lot about paying workers a living wage. But here when we asked the worker, they said that they only earned this. So then it becomes much easier to knock on the brand’s door and say you said that you care so much about being workers a living wage, but we spoke with a few of your workers in Pakistan, and they said that they are earning only half of a living wage, for example.
So yeah, this really helps us in holding brands accountable. And also hopefully showing consumers that they really shouldn’t buy everything that a brand says.
Because obviously they have a lot of money to produce very shiny, and beautiful sustainability reports making lots of beautiful claims and promises. But I think this is really a bit of a warning for brands like don’t do that.
Don’t say that you’re doing it, and then not do it. Because I think we will find out. Especially because as a CCC network, we have the ability to connect directly with workers on the ground. So we will find out you know.
So yeah either don’t make that claim — well actually do make the claim, but then also please live up to it and not..
Yeah, completely. And I think I’m so glad that networks like the Clean Clothes Campaign exist so that those kinds of greenwashing can be really uncovered. Because, like you said, even from a consumer perspective, it’s sometimes difficult to really be able to unpack and tell what claims are false and which claims aren’t.
So having organizations like CCC, being able to do that work on the ground and measure up their claims to what’s actually happening is so important.
I wanted to touch on one of the most common reactions I’ve heard when there are discussions about living wages. When we talk about living wages there has been a reaction that, won’t this mean that garment workers will lose jobs?
If they are paid more and brands don’t want to pay that money, and I was wondering how you respond to those kinds of comments, or what your take on it is?
Yeah. Well, I think first of all, this is already a much better reaction than another response that we often get. Namely, consumers wondering if they will have to pay much more for clothes if workers are being paid a living wage.
I think this really shows that people do understand a little bit how it works. Because I often get that reaction when I tell people where I work. And then people immediately feel the need to say, like, oh, yeah, I never shopped there. Or I will drastically reduce the amount of clothes that I buy, which, of course, has an effect on workers. Because if we all start buying less, and there will be less jobs, if we hold on to this model. And I think that’s where there’s a lot to win.
Because I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that workers will lose their jobs as soon as brands start paying them a living wage. But this does require quite a drastic change. I think if we think about a slow fashion model where less clothes would be produced, but it would take more time to produce one item of clothing, this already means that you would still need workers because it just takes longer to make one item.
Also, in a slow and fair fashion model, workers should no longer be forced to work overtime, just to make sure that some insane order deadline is met. Because that’s currently what’s happening. And a lot of, especially women workers, feel the need to work overtime just to make a little bit of extra money.
So if we think about a slower model, where workers already earn enough in a normal eight-hour working day, this also means that all the work needs to happen within these normal working hours.
So that means that if the order is still the same size, a larger amount of workers would be needed to finish the order in time. So, really, I’m not so worried about the loss of jobs to be honest.
At least I’m not more worried about that than continuing in the current sort of system, where workers are constantly trapped in a cycle of poverty and I think some people refer to garment workers as the working poor. And I completely agree with that.
Workers are exhausted after working in this industry for just a couple of years. Because it’s insane what is demanded from workers in this industry. Many workers can really physically not keep up with the work in this industry for more than six, seven, or eight years, and then they’re completely done.
So I think what we really have to be concerned about is how we make the jobs that we have. I think there are estimates about how many people work in the garment industry, I think they vary from 35 million to 60 million people working in this industry.
So that’s good, right? That it creates jobs. But these jobs are really not good jobs.
But I’m sure that if brands changed their business practices, and turned to a slower fashion model that people can keep their jobs because of those two things – taking more time to produce one piece of clothing, and also, workers not working insane amounts of overtime anymore.
So that means fewer hours available per worker to work on an order. That would be my take on that.
Yeah, no, that’s a really good explanation. And I love how you described it, as well as the whole system that needs to change. Because when we talk about moving towards a slow model, it’s also about how we understand the fashion system and how we understand our relationships with clothing and the value that they hold in our lives.
So yeah, I think the way you explained that in a holistic and systemic sense, makes a lot of sense to me. And I also think that it’s so important, again, to emphasize focusing on creating good jobs instead of just any jobs.
Because if we’re trying to create a more just system, it’s not just about creating jobs, it’s about creating jobs that help people to break out of those cycles of poverty and live lives that they are happy with and proud of and enjoy. So it’s about how we rethink the system as a whole.
And I think that leads me on to my next point, which is often how environmental sustainability is seen at odds with social sustainability and worker rights. And we have touched on this a bit in the previous question. But do you think it’s possible to slow down fashion and bring fashion in line with planetary boundaries, while also creating sustainable livelihoods and paying government workers living wages?
Yes, I think that is possible. Again, it would require quite a sort of drastic change. I’m going to steal a concept that one of my colleagues came up with a few years ago already, which she called Wages, Not Waste.
And this refers to the fact that brands would need to make very serious choices if they were to pay workers a living wage. On average, I think current wages would need to triple in order to become a living wage.
I explained very early on in this interview, that what we’re currently paying for labor is not a whole lot, but it would still be something to consider for a brand. Like how, how would we do that?
But if you think about it, in the current business model, brands are actually also spending money, or paying for waste. Because they make such big orders that are not based on any realistic figure or estimate.
So they order in bulk, because that’s cheaper. But a really significant amount of these clothes is never sold, and goes to landfill, sometimes, almost directly.
Storing clothes also costs money. Shipping them costs money. Burning clothes costs money. So if you think about that, all this money that brands are spending on doing all of that, if that money could somehow be used to pay workers a living wage, then that would be amazing.
But for some reason, this seems too much of an extreme idea. Whereas the fact that clothes are being burned, or only worn once or twice is completely normal in the current system, which honestly blows my mind, if I think about it for longer than a few seconds.
But yeah, I think it is possible to slow down fashion and think more about the environment. And I think, again, it comes down to pricing, right? Like decisions that brands make very early on in the process, like how much do we pay for labor? How many pieces of a specific piece of clothing do we actually need to order? Instead of currently only caring about everything being as fast and as cheap as possible? Because this has a gigantic impact on the planet and on the people who are involved in this production cycle?
Completely. And I think, what you are explaining, really also just drives home the point that we can’t think about environmental sustainability without ethics and without bringing in that social element. Because at the end of the day, even when we think about waste, those systems interact and have implications on each other.
So, I completely agree that we need to think about both at the same time, and then also just shift our values around what we see as important in the fashion system.
So on that note, I wanted to just pick your brain about if you could share some advice on actions we can all take to advocate for a fashion system that values the labor of common workers, and hopefully implements living wages.
Yes, I think, yeah, I think it’s really important for consumers to realize that they matter for brands. I think if you have to name two groups of people that brands care about, it would be consumers and probably their shareholders. Because that’s where money is coming from, of course.
So I think the best thing you can do as a consumer, first of all, is to be critical. And really wonder about where the products that you’re buying came from? Question what brands are saying publicly about their ethics and really demand from them that they do better.
For example, by writing on their social media pages, or directly addressing them on Twitter with a question. If they start noticing that consumers care, and that they cannot get away any longer with certain practices in their supply chain because consumers are demanding that they do better, I think that’s a very powerful signal.
On top of that, it can be very interesting to follow social media accounts. A great one that I follow personally is @ohsoethical. This is a great way to be reminded about what’s going wrong in the supply chain and also better understand what’s happening on the ground.
A third one would be to sign petitions like ours. We quite often have a petition running. It’s a really small effort. So if you’d like you can also follow @cleanclothescampaign on Instagram or Twitter, where we usually share our petitions, and I think they do really make an impact. Of course, the more people sign, the bigger the impact.
The last one, which is a bit more of an effort, and also, money would be involved. But I think if you really care, and if you have the ability, I think it might also be worth looking into critical shareholding. Which sounds a bit scary, I realize that because shares and shareholding might sound like something that is only for old white men.
But I think as I said already, apart from consumers brands are also quite sensitive to what their shareholders think. So as a shareholder, they have a certain influence in that way. And there are numerous groups that are really into this, this ethical or critical shareholding.
So if you do a bit of research online, then you can probably find groups who do this. Then you can work with them, for example, by buying a few shares and donating the shares to those groups, so they can go to shareholder meetings for you and demand in shareholder meetings, for example, that brands pay a living wage, things like that.
I think are a really good way to scare brands a little bit and to make sure that we’re very serious about this.
Yes, those are really great options. And I have never actually heard about critical shareholding spoken about in the fashion industry before. So thank you so much for bringing that up.
And it’s a really interesting way to think about changing the system also from the inside out and being in those meetings and having a presence in spaces where fashion brands care a lot about like what their shareholders think of them. So that was a great tip.
And also just essential for us to also remember, even if we can’t be a part of the shareholding process, that there are so many options for us to engage in this advocacy and action work around challenging the way that the labor is valued, and that brands perceive garment workers in this industry.
This conversation has been enlightening, because wages and the behind-the-scenes of how fashion work is often, works is often not spoken about as much as it should be and the intricacies of it.
So thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom on this topic.
I have one last question to ask you before we end, which we ask every guest that comes on the podcast: what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
Yeah, I thought about this question a lot. And I really couldn’t come up with a less boring answer than this, which I think a few of your guests have already given the same answer.
But I think fashion just has to become a lot slower. In a way, I think the future of fashion would look a bit like what the past of fashion also looked like. So clothes of good quality that lasts longer than one season. Yeah to me that is a little bit what the future of fashion looks like.
And of course, these clothes would be made by workers who are paid a living wage, work in safe factories where they have the freedom to join or form unions, and are not forced to work overtime. Yeah, this would be the dream and hopefully reality.
And that’s a wrap for this episode. I hope that you learned as much from this conversation with Stella and Anne about living wages as I did.
If so, please share this episode with someone else who you think might also get something out of it. And if you’re sharing it on Instagram, you can tag @consciousstyle and @cleanclothescampaign. We would love to know what you thought!
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And if you can’t wait for next Tuesday’s podcast episode, another similar episode that I might recommend is episode 11 on fashion activism with Ayehsa Barenblat, the CEO of the fashion advocacy organization Remake.
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Okay, that’s all we have for you for now. I’ll catch you again here next Tuesday, or I’ll meet you in your inbox on Saturday if you’re a subscriber. Take care until then!
About Anne + Clean Clothes Campaign
Anne is the Living Wage Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) works to improve conditions and support
the empowerment of workers in the global garment industry. The CCC has
national campaigns in 17 European countries with a network of 250 organisations worldwide.