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Will America's Love for Cheap Clothing Doom the Sustainable Fashion Movement?

Business

By Liz Dwyer

It's common sense that if you're buying a pair of trendy $9 jeans at the mall, there's a good chance they were made in an overseas sweatshop by poorly paid women or children. Yet a new survey reveals that saving a buck is what's foremost in Americans' minds.

An Associated Press–GFK poll released last month found that when it comes to purchasing clothes, the majority of Americans prefer cheap prices over a “Made in the USA" label. The poll, inspired by campaign trail promises by presidential candidates to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., asked respondents to choose between two pairs of pants of the same fabric and design. The pair manufactured in the U.S. would set the shopper back $85, while the one sewn overseas would cost $50. A full 67 percent of respondents, regardless of household income, said they'd choose the cheaper pair of pants.

American Apparel's “sweatshop-free" premise aside, garments made in the USA aren't always ethically sewn. But inexpensive clothing produced in overseas sweatshops has long been a cornerstone of the fast-fashion industry—and as the poll shows, Americans are in love with low prices.

“Buying cheaply is a cultural deficiency that we can address with a common goal toward more sustainable practices," Orsola de Castro, the U.K.-based cofounder and director of Fashion Revolution, wrote in an email to TakePart.

De Castro launched Fashion Revolution after the fatal 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. The horrific (and preventable) accident killed more than 1,000 people and injured around 2,500 more. The organization works to turn the spotlight on child labor and sweatshop abuses. It spearheaded Fashion Revolution Week, an 86-nation awareness campaign, which took place April 18 - 24.

Given the penchant for low prices, Fashion Revolution's fight to get people to ask brands “Who made my clothes?" might seem like an uphill battle. It also doesn't help that studies show consumers often don't want to know if their clothing was produced ethically—and they'll ridicule people who do.

But de Castro believes “the narrative of fashion is changing and the public is beginning to understand that a fairer fashion industry can only be a change for the better and small changes in our buying habits can have resonant, positive effects."

Despite politicians' promises about a return to a Made in the USA heyday—which, given how cheap it is to make clothing around the world, is not likely to happen—de Castro believes that the solution is to ensure that the people working in places like Bangladesh are granted basic workers' rights.

“It is absolutely about basic human rights wherever there is a fashion production. The fashion industry creates millions of jobs, everywhere," wrote de Castro. “It is about ensuring integrity: encouraging an industry that, wherever it decides to produce, treats its workers fairly, pays a living wage, ensures safety and dignity. Quality products made by people with a good quality of life."

San Francisco–based Starre Vartan, the creator of the sustainable fashion website Eco-Chick.com and a founding member of Fashion Revolution Day USA, thinks there are plenty of things people should care about more than low prices.

“If the people reading support women's empowerment, they will support fair fashion," she wrote in an email. “The vast majority of garment workers in the world (60 million) are women (80 percent) and most clothing is consumed by women. Are you willing to throw another woman under the bus for a cheaper shirt? Considering how responsive the younger generation is on gender issues in the U.S., it doesn't make sense to dismiss issues of who makes your clothes."

The role of kids in producing fast fashion also can't be ignored, wrote Vartan. A video released last month by Fashion Revolution featured children in Germany trying to get jobs at clothing stores and companies. The stunt was designed to get viewers to question why people regularly buy clothing made by kids in developing countries while being simultaneously outraged over the prospect of employing children to work in the Western fashion industry.

Approximately 168 million children around the world are forced to work, according to the International Labour Organization. “Children are still used in many factories for piecework, cleanup and other tasks, rather than going to school so they can earn a few pennies for their families. Children should obviously not be working instead of going to school," wrote Vartan.

Daniela Degrassi, an Italian-born designer working with Fashion Revolution West Coast USA, says she ethically produces everything in her line, Annaborgia Vegan Couture. Her items aren't as inexpensive as what can be found in a trendy story at the mall, but on her company's website, Degrassi regularly blogs about sustainable brands, particularly from nations such as Bangladesh that have problems with sweatshops. People who care only about high prices may simply “not be exposed to the information," she wrote.

Both Degrassi and Vartan recommended The True Cost, a 2015 documentary revealing the often inhumane experiences of people around the globe who work in the garment industry. “People who see The True Cost find themselves unable to participate in fast fashion—or [they] seriously question and redefine their shopping habits," wrote Vartan.

Along with educating the public and demanding transparency from brands, de Castro believes government intervention and pressure on companies is sparking change.

“We are actually seeing a genuine and spontaneous outreach to review the fashion situation and address the pressing issues that affect its supply chain," she wrote. She added that government actions such as the 2015 Modern Day Slavery Act in the U.K.—which tackles slavery and corporate supply chains tied to it—as well as celebrities becoming involved in the conversation are making a difference.

As for the average shopper faced with the decision to buy some inexpensive jeans that'll wear out in a few washes, de Castro offers some sound advice. “We encourage vigilance and participation: be curious, find out, do something," she wrote.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

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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