UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs

News | 10 July 2018

NEW YORK (ILO News) - UN entities, organizations and companies gathered Tuesday July 10th, during the High-Level Political Forum, to present the UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs. As noted by the President of ECOSOC, Ms. Marie Chatardová, 75 million people are employed in the fashion industry worldwide. Many workers have tough working conditions due to hazardous materials, long working hours and low pay. In addition to impacting employment, the industry is a significant contributor to consumption; the average consumer is buying 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, and, on average, each piece of clothing is kept for half the time compared to 15 years ago. Fast fashion has thus become a social challenge.

Ms. Ava Holmes, the co-founder of Fashion for Conservation, and one of the keynote speakers at the event, noted that the fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter, only second to the oil industry. In addition, clothing pieces made of polyester increases pollutants in water every time they are washed. Ms. Holmes’ company has implemented an artisan designer training program in Peru to, not only improve sustainable sourcing of clothes, but promote fair labor practices and increase human capital.

Among other initiatives to facilitate sustainability in fashion is UNECE’s initiative for transparency. UNECE, in cooperation with UN/CEFACT, aims to develop traceability standards for the textile and leather sector, which is a sector highly affected by complex value chains, subcontracting and informal work. ITC have also done work on this aspect, by creating traceability maps, along with impact assessment reports, that companies can use to communicate information to their consumers.

Ms. Amber Barth from the ILO highlighted the importance of the fashion industry from a labor market perspective. She raised concerns about the largely inadequate labor conditions and pointed out that the ILO’s objective is to eradicate such practices in the industry. The ILO’s Better Work Programme, which is operational in 8 countries and affect 2.1 million factory workers, aims to improve working conditions and promote competitiveness in global supply chains. The program also improves factories’ compliance with both ILO labor standards and national legislation, especially related to compensation, contracts, occupational safety and health, and working time.

The key message from Ms. Barth was that gains in working conditions did not have to come at the expense of profitability. An independent study by Tufts University showed that Vietnamese factories that had participated in the Better Work Programme experienced a 25% increase in profitability on average, over the course of 4 years, while also benefitting from improved working conditions.

It is clear that the global garment industry can facilitate lifting people out of poverty, but decent work is critical, women must be empowered, and the economic growth has to be inclusive. The ILO will continue to work with other UN partners in achieving SDG 8 and making sustainable fashion a global reality.