Why are brands like Beckett Simonon calling for better legislation in the fashion industry?
Thank you Beckett Simonon for sponsoring this blog post. Everything writen is my opinion and the brand has not intervened in the content.
This year’s theme of Fashion Revolution Week (18th-24th April) is no coincidence.
MONEY FASHION POWER.
Those three words kept echoing in my head as I was following the recent announcements and conversations around the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. The EU strategy is the latest big attempt to regulate the fashion industry, and Fashion Revolution invites everyone to get involved now.
The message is clear: We need better legislation in the fashion industry.
Why does this matter so much?
While we may think of fashion as something personal, our clothes are always political, too. As I have written before, political and personal are not the opposites but are two sides of the same coin. The clothes we wear are a product of a political and economic context. It means they came out of decisions and are shaped by power dynamics.
The fashion industry is a system that benefits a handful of people while taking away from many. As with any system, sustainable (meaning, long-term) change needs to come from different directions and levels.
Policymakers and political leaders play a role here, just as brands and individuals do. Yet, the fashion industry is still poorly regulated.
Legal vs ethical
When we say that the fashion industry is poorly regulated, that is not to say that no regulations exist. There are many local, national, and international laws and trade rules that guide the industry. However, most of them are made to benefit the big businesses and maximise their profits. They fail to protect our resources or the people who make the clothes by design.
The question of minimum wage illustrates this the best.
The minimum wage is the minimum amount of money a worker must receive by the law of the country they work in. Most countries in the world have a legally defined minimum wage that businesses should respect. Fashion brands, unfortunately, find loopholes to avoid paying this. But even when they do, it still does not mean they are compensating fairly for the work behind their products.
Earning a minimum wage usually means that a person will not be able to afford basic needs, like food, housing, education, health care, or transportation. That is where we introduce a concept of a living wage, or the amount a person needs to receive to afford a standard of living in their country. Despite being a recognised human right by the United Nations, Fashion Revolution estimates that only about 2% of garment workers earn a living wage.
The problem is that the discrepancy between a legally defined minimum wage and a living wage can be significant. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that the wages in the garment industry are, on average, 2-5 times less than what the workers need to live a decent life. For example, an average wage covers only 33% of an estimated living wage in Serbia and Cambodia. In India, this is 42%, while in Sri Lanka, it is only 13%.
In other words, legal does not mean ethical.
If reading this makes you angry, luckily, you are not the only one. The major driving force behind the rise of ethical and sustainable fashion is the discussion about the minimum wage. Brands like Beckett Simonon choose to pay their workers far beyond a standard in the country. Since there are no official estimates of a living wage in Bogotá, Colombia, where they make their products, it is hard to compare the wages. However, this brand makes sure their artisans earn beyond what they need to simply cover their basic needs. Some call this a thriving wage because it is an investment in a long-term business and a person's wellbeing.
As Beckett Simonon explained to me, they want to set new standards in the industry. These standards ensure an equal distribution of wealth and power in the industry. To do so, a brand needs to look beyond fair pay.
Can we count on voluntary action?
Paying fairly the artisans that make their shoes is not the only thing Beckett Simonon does. They are also concerned about the environmental impact of their products and are taking steps to reduce it.
Among others, they are tackling waste. Beckett Simonon is one of the brands embracing the idea of a waste-led design, a concept coined by designer Célinne Semaan. They are rethinking their relationship with waste and are trying to minimise it at every step of design and production. Working on a made-to-order principle and producing for quality instead of quantity is a part of this strategy. So is donating their production scraps to two education programmes in Colombia. They estimate that this has saved 97 kg (214 lbs.) of leftover leather from landfills. Similarly, they extend the life of their shoes by organising a simple, free, and convenient way for people to donate the Simonon Beckett shoes to people in need.
But is this enough?
Beckett Simonon believes not, reminding us that we have to look at the bigger picture.
It is not about reaching perfection. Most brands I work with recognise their imperfections and the need to continue improving within their own supply chains. But that misses the point. What a single brand does is essential, but it can go only as far. We need these things to be a standard in the industry for more brands to follow.
“We want the policymakers to regulate us and our industry better”, Beckett Simonon said to me at one point: “We want others to put in the effort we do when it comes to people and environment. They will only do so if it is mandatory, rather than a matter of their choice.”
Things are changing
Beckett Simonon is not the only brand thinking this way; others have been advocating for governments to step up and help make the industry more sustainable. Such brands agree with activists, non-profits, and grassroots movements that have been fighting for a political change in fashion for years.
No matter how slow, they have been changing the tide.
In the past few years, we have seen changes in laws worldwide, often as a direct response to campaigns, protests, and advocacy. The EU and USA, the two biggest markets for fashion consumption, are certainly raising the bar for brands everywhere.
I already mentioned the European Union’s Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, announced on 30 March 2022. Though not without flaws, the strategy aims to transform the EU textile industry. New measures include an extended producer responsibility, sustainable design, waste management and more. Earlier in the year, the EU adopted a proposal for a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence. In essence, this calls for big corporations to take responsibility for their global supply chains. Because of the global nature of trade in fashion, it is not hard to see how such legal requirements can change the rules of the game in the entire industry.
The US policymakers are joining their European colleagues in this effort. The state of California passed a landmark bill to protect garment workers. Senate Bill 62, popularly known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, tackles practices in the industry, like paying the workers per garment made instead of per hour (resulting in below minimum wages). These and similar practices have been overseen by law previously.
Later, the state of New York voted for the Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (Bill S7428). It requires fashion retail sellers and manufacturers to disclose environmental and social due diligence policies. It could trigger a chain reaction and similar laws if signed into law, making a change more significant than a single state.
The list goes on. Countries and governments around the world have finally started tackling the industry. Now is the time to get involved and support the change you want to see.
Most of us think of our role in fashion as consumers. But we are also citizens and, therefore, do have a say!
Depending on where you are, the best way to call for better regulation and support the upcoming ones is to reach directly to your local legislators. After all, their job is to respond to citizens like yourself.
If you are in the EU, you have similar options too. Moreover, this year, you can support the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign and join organisations like Fashion Revolution in demanding living wage legislation across the sector. They need 1 million signatures from EU citizens to push for legislation. More info here.
Finally, you can also follow, support or even donate to movements and advocacy organisations, like Fashion Revolution.
How will you make your voice heard?