Public money shouldn’t bail out dirty fashion

The coronavirus outbreak has yet again shed light on the questionable practices of one of the world’s most polluting industries. Emily Macintosh argues government bailouts should fund a wardrobe change for the fashion industry. 

As consumer demand for fashion crashed during global lockdowns, many brands cancelled orders and delayed payments to suppliers. Millions of the vulnerable workers who make the world’s clothes have been left without vital income or social protection. The huge leverage companies have over the livelihoods of the people who power their profit has been exposed once again.

Campaigners have been working to highlight this power imbalance and the impact of overproduction for decades, calling out human rights abuses such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the impact of chemical pollution and the huge amount of our planet’s natural resources guzzled by the sector every year

Just before the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission announced it is working on new EU laws to tackle waste and exploitation in the textile industry, one of a slew of initiatives born out of the landmark European Green Deal launched by the Commission at the end of last year in a bid to tackle the climate and environmental crisis and secure jobs through sustainable economic activity. Over the coming months, civil society groups, including the European Environmental Bureau, will continue campaigning for the new textile laws to set strict rules on environmental protection and purchasing practices.

But as the world emerges from lockdown, in the immediate-term it will be the political decisions taken by EU governments as to how they spend public money to stimulate different sectors of the economy, including the apparel and footwear industry, that will set the tone for fashion in the post-corona world. 

A return on our money

To build back a better, fairer, healthier and more resilient society and economy that benefits all, European governments should design their recovery plans around the European Green Deal by ensuring that any public money used to bail out companies – such as subsidies, tax rebates, support to recover lost investments, and guarantees for loans – comes with binding and significant environmental and social conditions attached. 

It’s clear that fashion companies with a history of non-compliance with labour and environmental standards or taxation rules should not receive support. Governments must demand evidence to prove that action is being taken to honour payments to suppliers and mitigate the negative impact of cancelled orders on workers across their whole supply chain including through direct support to affected communities.

The #PayUp campaign is keeping track of brands which are yet to pay suppliers for completed or in-process orders.

In determining the level of support a company can receive, relevant documentation and third-party certifications should be looked at to assess a company’s environmental track record and the consistency of their current efforts to reduce climate emissions and pressure on our planet’s finite natural resources. 

Growth: so last season

Before the pandemic, sustainability was already an increasing priority for people when it came to clothing, and some brands are reporting that larger numbers of customers are now opting for fashion marketed as more sustainable. 

But COVID-19’s ongoing impact has revealed once again that continued economic growth – even the so-called ‘green’ kind – exacerbates inequalities and is inherently linked to planetary harm. 

This means that while ‘greening’ the current fashion system, by setting rules on what materials can and can’t be used and switching the industry to renewable energy, for example, are of course welcome and will make a difference, they are also not enough. If the fashion industry becomes more efficient and less wasteful, for example, but humans keep buying exponentially more and more new clothing, the total negative impact will still increase.

A wardrobe change in the post-corona world

Making fashion sustainable must also mean bold political ambition to change the industry’s core business model so that we massively reduce the overall amount of new clothing flowing into the economy in the first place.

We must reorganise the fashion sector in a socially and environmentally-just way so that clothes are bought and sold through shorter and more resilient supply chains, the wealth created is fairly distributed and the dominant business model is circular: a sea of thriving companies, including social enterprises and SMEs, producing clothing by remanufacturing textiles to prevent them ending up as waste, selling second-hand clothing, and providing repair and rental services.

High quality textile products produced from textile waste streams as part of the Belgian TopAtelier project

It’s therefore vital to ensure recovery plans support social enterprises and SMEs and ensure that future policies make polluters pay. When so often it is parts of the private sector which are against public intervention in the rest of the economy, it is unthinkable that taxpayers’ money now be used to prop up the current carbon-intensive and exploitative business model based on the proliferation of ever-more new clothes we don’t need.

Support could also be directed to more essential activities, such as the production of the personal protection equipment (PPE) we will need in the continued fight against the virus, as well as everyday, essential, wearable clothing, rather than the high-end luxury market, or short-lived fashion fads.

Coronavirus has shaken the global fashion industry. The first step to ensure it has a resilient future must be transparency on what criteria are used to set the conditions for public financial support to private companies. 

Bailouts must clean up dirty fashion, not give it a free pass to make more mess.