As the term “sustainability” gets little by little closer to the global spotlight, it´s definition limits start to fade away. The word itself is only used to evoke the idea of environmental issues and it's been unlink to the social concept it should also be related to. The truth is that, in order to achieve a circular system or at least a more sustainable one, the social aspect of production needs to be considered, an aspect that is usually forgotten in order to give time and space to the economic and environmental faces of the industry.
Today sustainability principles have been intertwined with the Triple Bottom Line Accounting ideas (TBLA), which refers to a method of measuring the economic, environmental, and community service impacts of an organization rather than the traditional practice of measuring just the financial bottom line (Elkington. J., 1998). Elkington tried to conceive a world where sustainable development (SD) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) could go hand by hand leading to social development as a byproduct of business production. So how come that the fashion system has forgotten the social aspect of the productive system? In part is because it gets lost in the giant flow of information of the chain.
According to the UN Global compact traceability is the “ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of products, components and materials, to ensure the reliability of declarations of sustainability in the areas of human rights, work (including health and safety), environment and anti-corruption” (Norton, T., Beier, J., Shields, L., Househam, A., Bombis, E., & Liew, D., 2014) For this to be achieved the active collaboration of actors in the production network is needed in order to allow companies to be sustainable and efficient at the same time (Vigolo, F., 2020)
The main issue in the fashion industry comes after the effects of the search for getting the lowest cost and highest profits in the market, that ends up with brands choosing third party producers that are located in poorly regulated countries and building up an untraceable chain. The outcome of this system can be summarised in workspaces that are exploitative, coercive, and harmful to workers (Coakley, M., & Kates, M., 2013) that not only includs low wages, and health and safety hazards, but also child labor, a topic that can not be disregarded (Remy, N., Speelman, E., & Swartz, S., 2016).
At the end, if we only care for the environmental side of sustainability, a concept born as a human intent of salvation will lose all its humanity. This is why creating a transparency model is so important, for it will let us trace the injustices in the system. Because, while businesses can influence, and certainly should communicate to and hold their partners accountable, the truth is suppliers and buyers usually have limited influence. A scheme that provides a neutral party that is responsible for the assurances across the whole of the chain is needed to exercise leverage with suppliers and producers where an individual company may have little influence(Norton, T., Beier, J., Shields, L., Househam, A., Bombis, E., & Liew, D., 2014)
The solutions for these problems involve more than one social actor. In the first place consumers need to step up their game and start prioritizing sustainable produced garments instead of the fast fashion alternatives, to make the effort and fight the system as appealing as it could be. In second place, policies should be made as governments stand for their citizens rights (mostly third world countries where the sweatshops are set), and even though it does not mean the issue will be solved completely, the regulation of sweatshop labor has the potential to greatly increase overall human welfare in general (Coakley, M., & Kates, M., 2013). And last, but not least, businesses need to understand the urgency of a change in the current productive paradigm, and start to measure sustainability performance across the entire supply chain, set goals for improvements, help suppliers to reduce their impact, and hold suppliers accountable if they don’t (Remy, N., Speelman, E., & Swartz, S., 2016). Sustainability must advocate for creating a system that is protected by humanity.
Elkington, J. (1998). Accounting for the triple bottom line. Measuring Business Excellence.
Coakley, M., & Kates, M. (2013). The ethical and economic case for sweatshop regulation. Journal of Business Ethics, 117(3), 553-558.
Norton, T., Beier, J., Shields, L., Househam, A., Bombis, E., & Liew, D. (2014). A guide to traceability: A practical approach to advance sustainability in global supply chains. United Nations Global Compact Office: New York, NY, USA.
Remy, N., Speelman, E., & Swartz, S. (2016). Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula. McKinsey Global Institute.
Vigolo, F. (2020). Sustainability in the Fashion Industry: the Key Role of Traceability for Responsible Companies (Bachelor's thesis, Università Ca'Foscari Venezia).