Could Living Wages Help Solve Fashion’s Climate Crisis? New research says yes
Fashion’s huge carbon footprint (estimated at 2% to 4% of global emissions and growing) is under fire from critics. It’s the target of new legislation in New York State. And renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg put the issue in the spotlight last fall, telling her 14 million Instagram followers: “The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency.” . Thunberg called for a system change.
Greta is right. The only problem is that the fashion industry has been on the same path for decades and doesn’t know how to pivot. A Business in vogue the analysis revealed that the brands do not have a “compelling plan” to achieve their climate goals. A 2020 McKinsey report concluded that current fashion decarbonization strategies would reduce CO2 to exactly zero by the end of the decade. Fundamental change is exactly what is needed.
How fundamental? Well, it’s both deceptively simple and something no major fashion brand envisions: Paying decent wages to garment workers.
That’s the telling argument made in the recent tell-all book by UC Santa Barbara environmental scientist Roland Geyer, Business at least: the role of companies and corporations on a planet in peril, which states that “labour rather than green products or materials hold the key to social and environmental sustainability”.
Geyer calculates that raising the wages of the world’s 35 million garment workers by just an extra $100 a week (about what is needed to achieve a living wage in Bangladesh and India) would immediately reduce 65, 3 megatons of CO2 from the global economy. That’s more than the carbon savings achieved by powering all retail stores with renewable energy and replacing a substantial amount of virgin polyester with recycled polyester.
How does work make industries like fashion greener? The work has no impact on the environment and reduces emissions through a phenomenon called reverse rebound effect (more on how it works in a minute). Geyer draws on a background in finance and 20 years of studying the impacts of consumer sectors like fashion to make his point. “Every dollar spent on labor is a dollar with no environmental impact. It’s a zero carbon dollar. It’s a dollar with no impact on biodiversity,” he says.
It’s a provocative argument that, if taken seriously, would upend fashion’s approach to sustainability.
Why Fashion’s Current Approach to Climate Action Won’t Work
The company less isn’t specifically about fashion, but the implications are hard to miss. No major clothing brand pays its clothing manufacturers in Asia, Africa, Central America or Eastern Europe enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Many retail workers toil for poverty wages. And no popular mainstream climate action plan mentions working conditions.
Before persuading its readers that a better salary is good for the planet, Geyer’s book spends its opening chapters explaining why today’s pursuit of eco-friendly products, such as “green” clothing, will ultimately fail to align our industries on planetary boundaries.
For example, fashion is investing heavily in sustainable material innovations, like Walmart’s sugarcane-based lingerie, Adidas’ mushroom leather sneakers, and AllBirds’ plastic-free sportswear. The problem with this approach is that making any material has a massive and unavoidable environmental impact, says Geyer. Switching to different inputs mainly involves changing impacts, for example high carbon emissions associated with synthetic materials to land use change and biodiversity impacts of natural materials.
While brands have no choice but to figure out how to run on less fossil fuels, without deeper systemic change, the transition to clean energy will introduce new environmental issues. An even bigger worry is that as brands try to extract more pollution and waste from their collections and use cleaner energy, they could also trigger ‘rebound effects’, the scientific term for the when “green” technological breakthroughs reduce the cost of a product. or service and drive up consumption, wiping out gains.
The classic example of a rebound effect is when a consumer buys a fuel-efficient car and uses the gas savings to drive twice as far. We are already seeing rebound effects in the clean energy sector, as consumers who have cheap solar at home increase their consumption elsewhere.
How Green Labor Theory Could Transform Fashion
The company less offers a number of strategies to make businesses and households truly sustainable, from refurbishing and reusing to using fewer materials per product, but these strategies also come with a high likelihood of rebound effects. That’s when the book comes to its conclusion that making our stuff with more labor, instead of different materials, is our best bet for transforming industries like fashion.
Green labor theory (my terminology; its concept) works primarily through what Geyer calls a reverse rebound effect. The assumption is that households have a fixed amount of disposable income and that every dollar spent on people’s time and skills is facto Unspent dollar on something with an innate environmental impact, like flying to Bali, buying a third flat screen for the guest bedroom, or blasting the air conditioning all day. “That extra $20 spent on a t-shirt to pay someone fairly is $20 spent without any impact on the environment, because I only paid for people’s time,” says Geyer.
Fashion could harness green labor theory in two main ways to start driving system change. The most immediate way is simply to pay people more, from cotton farms to retail stores. “In an industry where wages are already too low, I think it makes more sense to just raise wages,” says Geyer. A mere $10-a-day increase for all garment workers would mean an additional $84 billion a year in the global economy flowing into a zero-impact resource through the reverse rebound effect.
The second is to make clothing production longer and more skill-intensive, a kind of inversion of the fast fashion paradigm. “You could use the labor to improve the aesthetics, quality, or repairability of the garments,” says Geyer.
Brands can also continue to invest in repair and resale activities, as these industries are inherently labor intensive and therefore doubly sustainable thanks, again, to the reverse rebound effect. They can also market garments that are labor-intensive and qualified as climate-friendly and eco-friendly.
The industry can also reintegrate labor into garments simply by enforcing labor standards and slowing production down to a human pace. Big fast fashion brands like Shein and Fashion Nova are known for producing clothes as quickly as possible under grueling working conditions and forced overtime. According to Geyer’s logic, making fast fashion more human would automatically make it more sustainable, all without changing what it is made of. “A living wage t-shirt brings the environmental footprint path much more than trying to make a t-shirt out of bamboo or hemp,” he says.
What if Living Wages Just Killed Jobs and Other Potential Critics
There are of course many potential criticisms of a living wage approach to climate action. One criticism is that higher wages will only kill jobs, as the price of clothing rises and consumers can afford less. But not if the focus is on raising wages in sectors where wages are “excessively low,” such as fashion, as Geyer recommends. It would actually create jobs for those who need them most, as low-wage workers finally have money to spend. Currently, garment workers cannot even afford the cheap clothes they make.
Another argument is that the products will become too expensive. This argument is particularly weak in fashion, as brands like Shein, Fashion Nova, and Boohoo sell clothes for less than $10 each (some are as low as $2). Raising wages alone wouldn’t raise the price of fashion much. A living wage in India, for example, adds only 20 cents to the cost of a t-shirt, according to one study.
A more realistic scenario is that higher wages will force companies to automate more, leading to fewer jobs and more impact, the ultimate rebound effect. But we can also imagine smart policies and tax incentives that would help avoid this outcome.
The best argument for paying people more to fight climate change is that the social benefits alone are enough to give it a try. If paying fair wages has powerful carbon-saving potential, it might be the closest thing to a “Magic Bullet” we have, aligning labor rights and environmental efforts into one cause. to save the planet.
“It’s just fantastic,” says Geyer of Labour’s Green Energy. “Because we are achieving two very important sustainable development goals simultaneously.”
From degrowth to human-centered sustainability
On its surface, Les’s companys is part of a long intellectual tradition that questions the logic of infinite economic growth. William Stanley Jevons in 1865 first pointed out that making energy more efficient would increase its consumption, not decrease it, with his book The coal issue. More recent growth reviews, like Jason Hickel’s Less is more, insinuating that we will have to completely abandon industries like fashion to achieve our ecological goals.
But Geyer’s book ultimately draws its own more optimistic conclusion that it might be possible to have economic growth by reimagining our economy around humans rather than things. And we can start by redesigning our hardware to be more human-like than it is today.
From a consumer perspective, shoppers simply need to embrace a new concept that many of us have understood all along: clothing offering a living wage. is sustainable clothing. In fact, they might be the most eco-friendly clothes we own.