*This blog post was written for a CALS500 course titled " Climate Science, Impacts and Risks" through Royal Roads University.*
The UN has recognized the fashion industry as playing a key role in addressing the climate crisis and has begun to work with stakeholders within the industry to work towards change. The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change (FICCC) was developed in 2018 with a goal of achieving a reduction of 30% GHG emissions by 2030, and net-zero emissions within the fashion industry by 2050 (UNFCCC, 2021. p. 3). These are lofty goals, and an industry that relies so closely on raw natural materials, seasonality, and cheap labour will be required to address many systemic issues within its core before achieving them.
One key issue which has plagued the fashion industry for decades is inequality. Today, clothing is primarily produced in lower or middle-income countries (LMICs), commonly known as the Global South, where wages are low and the resources required to develop and enforce environmental and occupational safeguards are widely unavailable (Bick et al., 2018). In fact, this lack of restrictions is what attracted many European and American companies to shift their production to LMICs in the first place (Bick et al., 2018). The health and environmental impacts of fashion range widely, including the use of dangerous pesticides and chemical dyes and finishers in the textile production stage, occupational safety hazards in factories such as poor ventilation, a lack of protective gear when working with strong chemicals or “musculoskeletal hazards from repetitive motion tasks” (Bick et al., 2018). With 90% of garment factories operating in the Global South (Bick et al., 2018), those who live in these countries carry the burden of the environmental and health impacts associated with fashion.
The fashion industry relies heavily on this exploitative labor. Globally, garment assembly factories employ over 40 million workers, with women and girls making up almost 80% of this workforce (Naved et al., 2017).
Addressing climate change through the education of women and girls might seem far-fetched, but, as climate modeling indicates, there is a direct relationship between education, poverty, inequality, and climate change mitigation. The fashion industry, as one of the largest employers of women and girls in the world, is in a position to address the vulnerabilities experienced by women in the Global South and thereby has the potential to greatly decrease its contribution to the climate crisis by addressing the inequality baked into its business model.
Climate models have been used for decades to explore how climate change might impact our planet’s future. Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) were created to “model how socioeconomic factors might change over the next century” (Hausfather, 2018), and how these socioeconomic changes might affect climate models in an absence of adaptation or mitigation policy. Inputs of SSPs include “sustainable development, regional rivalry, inequality, fossil-fueled development, and middle-of-the-road development.” (Riahi et al, 2017, p.153) The SSPs were not created to predict the future of our planet in the face of climate change, as no climate model can predict what will happen to our Earth System; rather, they were intended to span a range of different futures that might be plausible depending on these various inputs (Hausfather, 2018).
SSPs consider the education of women and girls to be a significant input in determining these plausible future pathways. As noted by Zeke Hausfather in his essay titled ‘How ‘Shared Socioeconomic Pathways’ explore future climate change’, “assumptions for future female access to education strongly influences fertility and population growth” (Hausfather, 2018). There is much research exploring the relation of education to climate change, and investing in quality education is considered a key element if we are to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, have called on governments to support education related to climate change, and studies completed by the World Bank and the Centre for Global Development have highlighted “data demonstrating that educating women reduces their vulnerability to death and injury during natural disasters and could potentially reduce their families’ vulnerability to death and injury during weather-related disasters” (Anderson, A., 2010. p. 6).
It is clear that the risks associated with climate change will increase poverty and primarily affect those in poorer countries; drastically more so than wealthier ones. According to the UN, “developing countries will bear an estimated 75–80 percent of the cost of climate change” and the inhabitants of these countries are seven times more likely to die from climate change-related disasters than in the Global North. (Alston, P., 2019. p. 4)
The role of women’s rights and education is also recognized by The Human Rights Council, who takes “particular account of women’s rights” (Alston, P., 2019. p. 5), and by the UN’s ‘Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’, who have recognized the importance of “regulat[ing] private actors [in order to] mitigate the impact of natural disasters and protect vulnerable populations” (Alston, P., 2019. p. 6).
The fashion industry, without a doubt, is one of the largest private actors employing women and girls in the world. By addressing the rampant inequality perpetuated within garment assembly factories and textile development facilities, the fashion industry as a whole has the opportunity to make strong strides towards addressing its stake in the climate crisis.
Alston, P. (2019). Climate Change and Poverty: Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (Section III A. Human Rights, B. Poverty, C. Inequality). UN Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), report to UN Human Rights Council, A/HCR/41/39. Retrieved from: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3810720?ln=en
Anderson, A. (September, 2010). Combating Climate Change through Quality Education. Washington, DC: Brookings Global Economy and Development. Retrieved from https://www.preventionweb.net/files/15415_15415brookingspolicybriefclimatecha.pdf
Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. (2018). The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environmental Health, 17(1), 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
Hausfather, Z. (2018). Explainer: How ‘Shared Socioeconomic Pathways’ explore future climate change. Carbon Brief. Retrieved from https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-how-shared-socioeconomic-pathways-explore-future-climate-change
Naved, R., Rahman, T., Willan, S., Jewkes, R., & Gibbs, A. (2018). Female garment workers’ experiences of violence in their homes and workplaces in Bangladesh: a qualitative study. Social Science & Medicine, 196, 150-157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.11.040
Riahi, K., van Vuuren, D. P., Kriegler, E., Edmonds, J., O’neill, B. C., Fujimori, S., Bauer, N., Calvin, K., … Tavoni, M. (2017). The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: An overview. Global environmental change, 42, 153-168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.05.009