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Why We Need a Fashion Revolution

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By Allison Gardner

Under what conditions were your clothes made? More likely than not, slavery has touched at least part of the outfit you're wearing today.


According to the Global Slavery Index, roughly 40.3 million people were in slavery worldwide as of 2016, and 24.9 million of them were in forced labor. The GSI's latest report, which came out in summer 2018, expanded upon this research, breaking down the data to show the top five products most at risk of modern slavery.

Garments were number two on the list, coming in second only to technology.

Slavery in Fashion

The fashion supply chain is complex and expansive, meaning it provides a number of opportunities for slavery to flourish. It is estimated that roughly "100 pairs of hands touch a garment during its production," but audits are often limited to just first and second tier suppliers, meaning they typically fail to expose issues further down the supply chain. Each stage of production poses a new opportunity for worker exploitation and human rights abuses like slavery.

One example of slavery at the raw material level of the fashion supply chain can be found in the cotton industry. Often, weak protective services or poor governmental oversight leave people vulnerable to forced labor, but in some cases, the government itself is the perpetrator.

For example, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the fifth and seventh largest exporters of cotton worldwide, employ state-led forced labor systems of cotton production, according to The Cotton Campaign. For decades these systems have routinely forced citizens, adults and children alike, to leave their work or school each fall in order to participate in the cotton harvest.

The Uzbek and Turkmen governments have successfully practiced this abuse of their people by threatening, detaining, assaulting, and imprisoning citizens who refuse or who attempt to report the abuse. The profits from both countries' cotton sales remain solely with the governments.

After years of advocacy and political pressure from NGOs, this past year the government of Uzbekistan finally introduced legislation to address the state-sponsored atrocity. However, research has already shown that the 2018 harvest this past fall was still heavily reliant on forced labor.

[With the DoneGood Shop and browser plugin, you can quickly, easily, and affordably support hundreds of ethical and sustainable brands.]

Further down the supply chain, slavery also exists within the mills that spin cotton into useable material. The garment industry in India, for example, is known to have a major issue with forcing young women to work in spinning mills for little or no pay.

A system known as the "Sumangali Scheme" has been employed for years by spinning mills and garment factories in Southern India. Praying on economically disadvantaged young women in the north, factory recruiters offer them two to three year apprenticeship contracts with the promise of a lump sum of payment at the end.

For young women from poor families, this opportunity is often too good to pass up, as many of them hope to one day be married, and their families typically cannot afford a large dowry for them (sumangali in Tamil means "happily married woman"). Thus, this scheme provides factory recruiters with a mechanism to easily staff their facilities at a very low cost and appears to offer young women the opportunity to seek a better future for themselves.

In practice, however, the scheme has been shown to lead to a myriad of human rights abuses, including instances of modern day slavery. The young women are all too often subject to poor or unhygienic working and living conditions, frequently face discrimination and sexual harassment, and very often do not receive that lump sum of payment they were promised.

These are just a couple examples of slavery within the fashion industry, but there are undoubtedly many more.

A Complex Problem

Whether it's the fields where the cotton was grown, the mills where it was spun, or the factories where the garments were sewn, the industry is notorious for providing opportunities for exploitation.

If this upsets you, and it probably should, you might wonder who's responsibility it is to step in and fight slavery within such a complex industry.

Some might point to individual brands, arguing that they choose to work with factories and manufacturers that may or may not treat their employees well. Others may turn to the factory owner or recruiter who is directly imposing the conditions that can either support or exploit other human beings. Governments, particularly those that are uncorrupted, could also be the decision-makers.

In reality, though, there is one other group that shares the power to change this system. And that's us, the consumers.

What We Can Do

Our consumption drives a subset of an industry that relies on exploitation. And because of that, we can also become part of the solution.

This Fashion Revolution Week, we should all ask "Who Made My Clothes?" but perhaps a follow up question is also necessary: "What Am I Doing About It?"

As consumers we have power to change the fashion industry for good, but in order to do so, we must recognize our role and acknowledge our responsibility.

The first step will undoubtedly be educating ourselves, and fortunately organizations like Fashion Revolution provide us with ample resources to do that. But the second step will likely be harder; we will need to take action.

Each person's journey to conscious consumerism is unique, but at the very least, we can provide you with the tools to find brands who share your values. With the DoneGood Shop and browser plugin, you can quickly, easily, and affordably support hundreds of ethical and sustainable brands.


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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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