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A supervisor oversees his employees’ work in a clothing plant in Vietnam. © BetterWork
The future of work in fashion
5 Jul 2020

Investing in inclusive and sustainable supply chains


The future of work in the fashion industry looks increasingly uncertain: can we make it more sustainable and inclusive?

Clothing is the ultimate expression of fashion. The garment industry and its supply chains give life to new trends, generate business opportunities for designers and entrepreneurs across the globe, and create millions of manufacturing jobs, mostly for young women.

Ever faster fashion has increased consumption and mass production dramatically. The fashion and textile industry today is worth an estimated US$2.5 trillion. More than 100 billion garments are sold each year. However, the industry’s rapidly growing environmental footprint and prevalence of poor working conditions have led many to conclude that the current trajectory is unsustainable.

These concerns have been magnified by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shop closures and cancellation of orders have caused garment supply chains to unravel. Thousands of firms have gone out of business and millions of workers have lost their livelihoods.


Seamstresses at Paradise Umbrella Group CO., the largest umbrella manufacturer in China-Hangzhou. © BetterWork

Why is the future of the garment sector important?

More than 70 million women and men work in the garment industry. Several times more work across the entire supply chain, in cotton fields, mills, factories, warehouses, in transport and logistics, shops and stores, offices of brands and buyers, and on digital platforms.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the garment industry has been a major driver of growth and job creation, particularly for women in newly industrialized countries. Today, it supports small and medium sized enterprises across the world, fosters new ideas and innovation, and contributes to exports, trade and economic growth.

What are the challenges that the sector faces today?

The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013 killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500.

Considerable efforts have been made to address the issues that led to that disaster, such as those of the Better Work programme.

Better Work

A collaboration between the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group.

Working towards a global garment industry that lifts millions of people out of poverty by providing decent work, empowering women, driving business competitiveness and promoting inclusive economic growth.

It brings together all levels of the garment industry to improve working conditions and respect of labour rights for workers and boost the competitiveness of apparel businesses.

The programme is active in 1,600 factories employing more than 2.4 million workers in nine countries.

The programme is active in 1,600 factories employing more than 2.4 million workers in nine countries.

Collaboration with governments to strengthen labour laws, and with brands to ensure progress is sustained.

Support to brands and factories to improve compliance with ILO core labour standards and national legislation covering compensation, contracts, occupational safety and health and working time.

Collaboration with unions on ensuring workers’ voice is represented at the workplace, and work with donors to help achieve their broader development goals.

Haitian tailors are seen working on a production line in a local clothing plant. © BetterWork

Nevertheless, Rana Plaza continues to serve as a reminder of the often unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in many countries: low wages, long hours of work, and little or no access to social security, including maternity leave and health care. Gender pay gaps, discrimination and a lack of freedom of association are commonplace.

At the same time, billions of dollars’ worth of clothing go unsold each year, and three-fifths of the clothes produced each year are thrown away within a year of purchase. The fashion industry is accountable for 20 per cent of global wastewater and is a major contributor to carbon emissions. One major brand has been accused of burning 60 tons of unsold clothing since 2013 and another luxury brand destroyed US$37 million of clothes in 2018. The women and men who handle our garments at the end of their life-cycle often toil in even worse conditions than those who produce it in the first place.

… And what does the future of work look like?

The future of work in fashion is more uncertain than ever before.

On the one hand, new technologies such as laser cutting, advanced robotics, 3D printing, new materials and digitalization have the potential to improve the sector’s productivity as well as its environmental sustainability.

On the other hand, automation and digitalization may bring about job losses and drive the “re-“ or “nearshoring” of production closer to consumer markets. In 2019, a Chinese garment manufacturer announced a factory in Arkansas, United States, able to produce 1.2 million T-shirts a year at a price of approximately US$0.33 each, less than what is possible with low-cost labour.

It is, however, unlikely that garment manufacturing will be dominated by robots and algorithms any time soon. It is more likely that labour-intensive, low-tech production will co-exist with highly automated production in high- and middle- income countries.

What is the industry doing to build a more sustainable future?

Brands such as H&M, Nike and Lenzing, have introduced programmes to encourage recycling and advancing a circular economic approach in the industry. That means moving from a linear take-make-use-dispose model of consumption and production towards more sustainable practices, based on greener business models and design, resource-efficient manufacturing, and increased repair, reuse, refurbishing, and recycling.

Key industry actors are increasingly joining forces to simultaneously address the twin challenges of advancing decent work and environmental sustainability.

The most recent example is COVID-19: Action in the global garment industry. The International Organization of Employers (IOE), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), IndustriALL Global Union, Bangladesh Employers’ Federation and major brands and retailers are working with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to support manufacturers to survive the economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and to protect garment workers’ income, health and employment.

What is the road ahead for a more sustainable industry?

A human-centred approach is essential to advancing decent work and environmental sustainability in the garment industry and its supply chains. The ILO’s Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work highlights how increased investment in people’s capabilities and skills, employment creation, and promotion of decent and sustainable work can help build a brighter future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for new sectoral strategies, embedding principles of equal access to adequate social protection, worker’s rights, fair remuneration and working conditions, and occupational safety and health, while urgently enhancing environmental sustainability.

The transition to an industry that is digital and carbon neutral should be one where people are guaranteed dignity, security and equal opportunity. It is crucial to ensure regulations and policies are in place to provide decent work for and to protect the millions of women and men who design, produce, transport and sell the clothes we wear from discrimination, violence and harassment.

When we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will crave glitz and glamour, something the fashion industry can provide. The sector will again see a spike in sales, but will it be more or less sustainable than it was before? We have an opportunity to invest in environmental and social sustainability and transform the sector. This will be key to ensuring that the post-crisis future will be a better normal – and not just a new normal – for the fashion industry and its workers.

* Margherita Licata is a Private Services Specialist, working in the Sectoral Policies Department of the International Labour Organization, focusing on economic sectors, including retail and commerce, financial services and media and culture. William Kemp is a technical officer, working in the Sectoral Policies Department of the International Labour Organization, focusing on the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear industries.
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