Circular garments: What About the Workers?

Published on 3 June 2019

Image of Patrick Schröder
Patrick Schröder

Research Fellow

Joanna Howarth

With only 11.5 years to address runaway climate change, governments and businesses are under pressure to increase their efforts and develop alternative strategies for alternative approaches to growth and development. The garment industry—one of the biggest polluters and greatest producers of waste on planet earth— is embracing circular economy (CE) approaches that by design, resources and their value are kept in use for as long as possible. Overall, a positive move, but the risk of elevating economic and environmental needs above social needs could jeaopardise the garment labour force as an unintended consequence of this system shift.

Circular garments are in high fashion

The garment industry has begun engaging with the CE in multiple ways. For example, the C&A Foundation are supporting transition to circularity by nurturing and scaling innovation; leading garment industry CEOs have committed to a circular fashion system through the CEO Agenda 2019; and Forum for the Future’s Circular Leap Asia innovation programme aims to increase the agency of apparel manufacturers to lead the adoption and scaling of circular solutions. As a relatively nascent concept, empirical evidence of the impact of such CE initiatives on labour rights is slim.

The literature on CE suggests that transition to circularity across multiple sectors will generate new employment opportunities for developing countries, and that these jobs will be better because they will cut across society due to the diversification of skills the CE will call for. The CE literature seems to hold circularity up as a solution to unemployment and to formalise those in the informal economy. But it rarely considers how employment conditions could change for those already in work. Indeed, labour unions have been largely absent from much of the CE discourse.

A New Textiles Economy

In light of a lack of empirical evidence, we looked at how implementation of the CE by the garment industry could impact workers, by reviewing recommendations made in the recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report A New Textiles Economy. It is noteworthy that the report largely overlooks garment workers—their abuses are highlighted under the current status of the industry, but not adequately addressed within the CE vision. It is suggested that CE is a win-win for workers—because the CE is redistributive by design—without any in-depth discussion about the structural changes required for this to happen.

Recommendations made by A New Textiles Economy, and what they might mean for workers include:

  1. Change how consumers buy and engage with clothes, focusing on: short term rental, subscriptions rental, sale of highly durable clothes, repair and resale of clothes. This is likely to mean fewer clothes being produced, and thus less demand for garment workers with their skills needed elsewhere (e.g.: within repair and resale of clothes). Or, the industry could keep the same number of workers, but produce fewer, but high quality and durable clothes with workers under less pressure.
  2. Change how we use and create textiles, using less environmentally damaging textiles (e.g.: Pinatex) and diverting waste fabric from landfill by turning it into new items. This has the potential for new employment opportunities for workers within the upcycling of waste-fabric, however, outside of the garment factories, there could be issues relating to working conditions for those involved in making the materials.
  3. Phase out substances of concern meaning clothes create less toxins, natural materials could be composted after use, and less toxins in landfill. For workers, a large benefit would be improved health with reduced exposure to toxic substances, as well as positive implications for communities in the vicinities of textile manufacturing sites (e.g.: reduced water pollution).
  4. Use technologies that facilitate reuse and recycling of clothes—for example, technology that can unravel yarns, and Near Infrared technologies to sort garments for reuse/recycling based on colour and material. If the garment sector takes the high-tech path, production may shift to places with a higher skilled workforce. There would still be a need for garment workers in current production sites, but potentially fewer of them and they would need to be up-skilled to handle technologies. There is also a risk that a new cohort of workers are introduced to manage the technologies, rather than absorbing the existing workforce.
  5. States to implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), meaning the end-of-life stage of a garment becomes the responsibility of the brand (implementation of EPR is already being done by the EU, and the UK’s recent Environmental Audit Committee Report is recommending the Penny Tax as a form of EPR). EPR policies would not directly impact garment workers in current supplier countries but would require new reverse logistics operations, and it would need a workforce to sort and recycle garments closer to consumer markets. It will be important to ensure safe and decent working conditions for garment collection and recycling workers.

There are some large assumptions that sit behind the recommendations—assumptions that consumer behaviour will change, that retailers will implement efficient reverse logistics to create circular supply chains, and that green industrial policy of garment export countries will align with CE needs. One of the greatest assumptions though, is that a system that is distributive by design, means that value is circulated among everyone. It is wishful thinking that a new system carries with it new mindsets and the potential to challenge existing power structures.

Inclusive CE models for the garment industry

There is a very evident risk that a shift to a circular garment industry will continue to ignore worker rights violations, unless value chain actors have social interests within their business model.

A good example of where this is working well, is the organisation Ella Pads in Bangladesh. Ella Pads uses textile waste off-cuts from the Zahara Fashion Ltd. factory in Dhaka (Bangladesh) to produce low-cost sanitary towels for female garment workers. The organisation—founded by IDS Alumni Mamunur Rahman—aims to tackle issues of environmental waste while simultaneously addressing social barriers that garment workers face. Garment workers miss on average 3-4 days of work and income every month as many factories do not have sanitary facilities for women and they lack access to sanitary products. Ella Pads are made by female workers, owned by female workers and used by female workers. Launched in 2015, they have already expanded into underwear and reusable sanitary towels, with a goal to employ 1,000 women by 2020.

Linking environmental, economic and social issues

It is important to note the purpose of this blog is not to dismiss A New Textiles Economy—which is a powerful report proposing practical and exciting ways in which the CE can address fashion’s harmful environmental impacts. Instead, the aim is to flag risks that may emerge as a bi-product of such recommendations, and system shift.

For too long, environmental, economic, and social issues have been addressed in silo. Under the CE, environmental and economic issues are converging, but questions remain as to whether the CE is truly embracing the seminal opportunity it has to not only redesign the system to reduce waste, but also design out poverty and inequality.

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