A cleaner and fairer supply chain: representation and inclusion are needed for the transition to a low-carbon circular economy
Increased global warming
250 years ago, there were less than one billion people on the planet. Today, the human population is 7.5 billion with a net increase of eighty-two million per year and growing pressure on planetary boundaries. We are currently using natural resources 1.7 times faster than they can be regenerated. The way we consume our social, natural, intellectual and creative resources is destructive and we collectively break the natural cycle, as well as our dynamic equilibrium. The current economic paradigm is characterized by the notion of ‘bigger is better, more is better, richer is better, faster is better’. Our mental, biological and ethical welfare are, however, disrupted by this system that is fueled by the insatiable desire for short-term financial growth. Undoubtedly, we are failing to listen to the biosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased from 413.39 ppm, in January 2020, to 415.28 ppm, in January 2021. The use of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere and oceans. The surge in CO2 concentrations has led to increased global warming. As such, 2020 was the hottest year on record and the seventh time a ‘hottest year on record’ has been recorded since 2014.
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about eighty percent of fossil fuel reserves would need to remain in the ground for the international community to reach the Paris Agreement’s 2015 target of staying below a maximum of a two degrees Celsius global average temperature rise from the pre-industrial average. One symptom of global warming is that there were forty weather-related natural disasters in 2019, each of them causing more than forty billion dollars in damages to homes, businesses, infrastructure, forestry and agricultural crops. The increasing frequency and severity of these events is driven by climate change and ocean warming. In 2010, more than eight million livestock were killed and again, in 2016, more than one million by the dzud, a violent natural disaster in Mongolia caused when a summer drought leads to a severe winter; hence, massive numbers of livestock perish from the cold or starvation. As a result of the melting of ice and warming of oceans globally, we will have a one to three meter sea level rise in the next few decades, which will cause catastrophic social and economic consequences for millions of people living on low-lying islands and continental low-land regions. In terms of biodiversity, out of every million species between one hundred and 1000 become extinct every year. Biodiversity is declining due to land use and climate change, human population growth, the overexploitation of natural resources and pollution. These result from demographic, economic, socio-political, cultural, technological and other indirect drivers, which are weakening the ecological web and endangering the lives of present and future human generations.
Building our post COVID-19 societies
When we go beyond the limits of a sustainable ecosystem, the normal dynamic equilibria are critically disrupted. As a consequence, interconnected environmental, social and economic crises are challenging societies in numerous ways. These dynamics make societies vulnerable to global pandemics such as COVID-19, which further exacerbate pervasive social inequities. A recent study by Oxfam documented that by the time a billionaire is flown by private jet from New York to the Swiss Alps, nearly 200,000 people will have been forced into poverty by Covid-19. This demonstrates that social, environmental, health and economic dimensions must be addressed to reduce any negative consequences, especially for the people of poorer and more vulnerable communities. Our current system is broken and it cannot be fixed by policies and practices designed to achieve incrementally better efficiency, while neglecting the terrestrial and ethical boundaries we need to respect. We also have a crisis of ‘anti-science’, which rejects science and scientific methods as necessary in understanding the roots of many of our problems. Those who hold anti-scientific views do not accept science as an objective method that can provide solutions to our pandemics and other global crises. The authors of this article urge civil societies, policy makers, businesspeople, educators and leaders to work together in order to make science-based decisions that can help us craft urgently needed, provocative, radical, transformative and inclusive solutions. There are clear symptoms that we need to make many paradigm shifts. We need to build our post COVID-19 societies to be equitable, sustainable and livable post-fossil fuel societies that thrive in equilibrium within geo-ecological boundaries. This will require a transition from ego-centric to eco-centric visions, policies and practices.
Fashion is a massive, rapacious industry that is dependent upon a human workforce that employs more than 300 million people in dispersed, complex and fragmented fashion supply chains with a female-dominant gender focus. seventy five percent of all garment workers are women. The global fashion industry has gender inequities and is responsible for the impact it causes in our world. By continuing to pursue the financial growth paradigm, it produces more than 100 billion clothing items every year. Overproduction is a systemic problem with consequences. Thirty-five percent of material inputs are wasted across supply chains. The fashion industry annually produces ninety-two million tons of solid waste, which is four percent of global solid waste and causes a further ten percent of the total global carbon emissions. Dyes and other substances used by the fashion industry significantly pollute water resources. Recent studies show that petroleum-based synthetic fibers account for sixty percent of all clothing material worldwide; however, wearing and washing synthetics releases more than the equivalent of fifty billion plastic bottles of microfibers into water sources.
Hazardous working conditions, human rights violations and low wages are inexcusable. China’s Xinjiang region, which is associated with serious human rights violations, produces approximately twenty percent of the world’s cotton. The majority of environmental and social risks are located at the lower supply chain tiers but distance between brands and suppliers, in addition to power imbalances, prevent the transition to environmentally and socially sustainable supply chains. The lack of integration of ‘equality and sustainability’ in fashion and other industrial sectors results in social disasters, as exemplified by the collapse of Rana Plaza, a Bangladeshi clothing manufacturing facility that had its emergency exit doors welded shut. This clothing factory disaster took the lives of 1,134 garment workers. Child labor also exists in fashion supply chains. Children and other workers are developing chronic illnesses due to exposure to chemicals used in the production of fashion products. There are safer alternatives for many of the more toxic chemicals that are now being used by some brands. Such environmental and social sustainability policies, procedures and economic changes should nevertheless be transparently, scientifically and urgently embedded within all fashion supply chains. Sustainability needs to be perceived as a dynamic and cultural construct where responsible practices, transformative policies, inclusive dialogues and conscious consumption patterns are integrated into ‘ECO’-centric systems.
Our current system, characterized by power imbalances and lack of justice, is broken. Research shows that for decades, the most profitable fashion brands grew while garment workers’ wages declined. During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of workers lost their jobs due to fashion brands cancelling orders or adjusting their payment terms. According to the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), garment manufacturers and suppliers across the world lost more than 16.2 billion dollars from April through June of 2020 in the United States. Garment workers, on the other hand, are reportedly owed between 3 billion dollars to 6 billion dollars in wages for just the first three months of the pandemic. Central banks are providing big companies with large-scale funding, without taking into account responsible supply chain or procurement considerations. Social inequalities will not be solved by giving funds to those located at the top of the pyramid. Social inequalities will not be fixed by undertaking incremental actions.
Fashion industry inequality
Currently, the most affected are the disfranchised and vulnerable communities working at the base of the pyramid across dispersed and fragmented fashion supply chains. They, and all other workers, need to be protected, but the fashion industry does not distribute wealth, power and justice evenly. Representation, inclusion, integration and equity are urgently needed; therefore, we must ensure that workers throughout supply chains become empowered to help develop frameworks, strategies and commitments to worker health safety protections and proper salaries. Additionally, establishing scientifically sound and measurable criteria is essential for ensuring that sustainable strategies, frameworks and commitments are inclusive, just and robust. We must move away from knee-jerk reactions to crises and instead plan and engage in systematic, policies and practices based upon holistic and preventative approaches. We must uncover and solve the root causes of these problems. Why is the fashion industry associated with extreme inequality? Because it is short-term profit-driven; because it is characterized by imbalanced power relations; because it is not human-centric; because it does not ensure inclusion and representation; because it is imposing and unemphatic; because it is dominated by petroleum-based synthetic materials; because it is hosting a number of doubtful and unscientific frameworks, definitions, and certification schemes that exacerbate problems for the more vulnerable and continue to legitimize corporate hypocrisy. Reducing the environmental and social footprints of any industry requires us to dig deeper throughout supply chains to empower all participants to cooperate, to envision and to implement much needed changes.
Cleaner Production (CP) and Circular Economies (CE)
Ongoing social dialogues are vital among trade unions, workers’ cooperatives, NGOs, scientists, civil society, governments and companies to focus on inclusive, equitable solutions. «In the Forties and Fifties, I grew up in Minnesota where my father was involved in three different cooperatives. We had a dairy cooperative, a feed, seed and fertilizer cooperative, and a telephone cooperative. We worked together with and for the entire community. Yes, cooperation is key to becoming stronger by making the ‘unacknowledged voices heard’» states Prof. Huisingh. He then adds: «Remember: Five grams of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure». We need to take preventative approaches to maintain the ecosphere’s equilibria as we seek to help to integrate the human sphere. We can do this by delving into solutions to help accelerate our transition to more sustainable societies for the short and long-term future. The conceptual and procedural approaches of Cleaner Production (CP) and Circular Economies (CE) are closely related frameworks that focus upon the prevention of problems at their sources, from product design to material sourcing, manufacturing, worker health and safety, marketing, customer satisfaction, upgrading, repairing, repurposing and recycling. The CP and CE frameworks are effective in helping producers decarbonize supply chains and are designed to ensure transparency, innovation and equity. The fashion industry can make positive contributions by using the CP and CE approaches in many ways such as shortening their supply chains based upon vertical integration and system-wide sustainability.
For the fashion industry, Sally Fox – the founder of Organically Grown, Colored Cotton – is exemplary. «I knew Sally, and I worked with her when I was on the faculty at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. One semester, I was coordinating a seminar series on innovative initiatives. Among the guest speakers, I invited Sally Fox from California to lead a seminar on experiences in breeding and producing ‘Colored Cotton’. Among the participants were textile faculty students and textile factory leaders. Most participants were interested, but some were skeptical about her breeding producing colored cotton. They all thought that natural cotton was always white. My wife bought some of her orange-brown denim and made some skirts and pants. To our surprise, in contrast with blue jeans with normal blue dye which become less and less blue over time, the colors of Sally’s natural cotton fabrics became darker instead of lighter. This is an example of how one woman bred and selected an array of colored cotton varieties that could make garments without using toxic dyes». When organic agriculture is used to produce colored cotton, fertilizers, pesticides and hazardous chemicals are not needed; hence, supply chains stay authentic, clean and honest. Materials require energy to produce and, therefore, have impacts on biodiversity, human health and the atmosphere throughout their life cycles. The integration of CP and CE into a paradigm designed to prevent or reduce wastes and the depletion of natural resources will help to minimize resource wastage, decrease water, air and soil pollution and reduce fossil-carbon footprints through closed-loop systems whereby products, materials and equipment are kept in use for longer periods. Designers should create products that are durable, repairable, and recyclable through multiple life cycles. We want to emphasize that there are trade-offs and tensions, not only between business objectives and sustainability, but also among social and environmental dimensions. Environmental improvements might come at the expense of social sustainabil- ity. We invite everyone to undertake science-based actions premised upon measurable criteria of how, and to what extent, circular practices are defined and implemented in the context of environmental and social sustainability.
The need for transparency
Circular economies can deliver promising solutions. Let’s take aluminum as an example. Materials that are mined from the geosphere impact upon the ecosphere causing potential health problems for the miners. Much energy is needed to refine bauxite into pure aluminum that can be used in a wide range of products. There is much embedded energy involved, as well as worker health and safety and environmental risks. In this context, if we design products in accordance with CE principles and if we develop supply chain architectures to support this paradigm shift without risking other trade-offs or tensions, about ninety percent of the embedded energy and nearly one hundred percent of the aluminum can be recovered when aluminum-based products are recycled into new products. This also reduces the need for mining more bauxite. Transformative policies, responsible companies, and conscious consumers are, therefore, needed to help to ensure an equitable landscape to catalyze systemic changes to sustainable societies. In order to make sustainable, systemic changes, societal members must envision a new ‘society’ and cooperate to transform this vision into a reality. Consumers, as the most influential stakeholder group, need to ask questions about transparency, authenticity and sustainability. Responses should start from within the industry and the broader society. We also need evidence in terms of what needs to be done and how this will provide improvements in diverse ways. We currently have definitions for many problems with no consensus on ways to solve or to even address them. We see an array of corporate commitments with little proof hence, serious questions remain unanswered: do companies really do what they say they will do? Will this help to reduce the negative impacts of ‘old’ procedures? Does this really bring social and environmental justice? We have not yet established and used measurable criteria for supply chain sustainability progress. We should establish science-based targets for working to achieve truly sustainable societies. Many approach sustainability as a narrow, static concept, but truly sustainable transitions are multifaceted and require long-term planning and commitments to make the needed changes. We need transparency and longitudinal evidence to independently monitor the progress companies, cities, regions and countries are making relative to social and environmental boundaries.
The Seven Generation Principle
Let us make decisions today that are responsible for us and the species around us, for now and for seven generations into the future. This is sometimes called The Seven Generation Principle. Seven generations, in many of the American Indian languages, means infinity, or forever. We are all interdependent. Transgenerational responsibility and equity are absolute needs for which new, integrative, preventative paradigms must be crafted and orchestrated. We should remember what Native Wisdom tells us: «The greatest strength is gentleness, whatever befalls the earth befalls the people of the earth». The word crisis is expressed in two characters in the Chinese, Korean and Japanese languages. The first character means Danger, but the second character means Opportunity. We need to learn how to look for opportunity in the current COVID-19 crises. We need to support societal metamorphoses, within and among the current intertwined crises, into new opportunities. A caterpillar must leave its comfort zone and change to become a butterfly. We, as stakeholders, should not stay in our cocoons; we should leave all differences aside, join forces and work together to catalyze cultural, behavioral and operational metamorphoses. We must unite behind science and we must take action; giving up can and will never be an option.
Dr. Hakan Karaosman
Is a social scientist focusing on environmental and justice in and across fashion supply chains. He is the Chief Scientist at FReSCH (Fashion’s Responsible Supply Chain Hub), an action research project awarded by the European Commission’s Research Executive Agency and hosted by University College Dublin.
Prof. Donald Huisingh
Is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus at Journal of Cleaner Production and professor of Sustainable Development at University of Tennessee.