Who is paying for my CHF7 T-shirt? – From Fast to Transparent Fashion

Umwelt, Energie & Verkehr

This summer, the forausblog has teamed up with students from the Master’s course “Law of Sustainable Development” taught by Charlotte Sieber-Gasser at the University of Lucerne. Students were asked to come up with their very own ideas for policy measures that would render the presence of humankind on this planet more intra- and inter-generationally just. The policy measures have to work towards achieving one particular UN Sustainable Development Goal and need to be in line with international law. The best original policy measures were selected by Charlotte Sieber-Gasser and published by the forausblog for this second edition of the series “Students on Sustainable Development.


by Andrea Renate Würsch 

The Sustainable Development Report shows that Switzerland is facing “major challenges” in achieving SDG12 which aims at ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. Further, compared to other parts of the world, Switzerland performs poorly regarding the International Spillover Index. The excessive consumption of fast fashion strongly contributes to this negative performance. The fashion industry is not only considered to be the second most polluting industry in the world, but it also implies poor and dangerous working conditions. In Europe, women on average own 118 pieces of clothes and buy 60 new pieces every year. Taking into consideration the burden put on the environment and humans, it is evident that a change in consumer behavior must happen. In this post, I argue that a label similar to the EU energy labels used for certain electronic devices should be introduced for clothes.

One does not have to know much about the production of clothes to understand that the people working along the production chain of a CHF7 T-shirt do not receive much in exchange for their work. In fact, many garment factory workers are working overtime without receiving due compensation, under unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and without any medical or social insurance. But not only human beings are negatively affected by the fashion industry; also the environment is being heavily impacted in the production process. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), around 93 billion cubic meters of water are used by the fashion industry every year. Further, water is being polluted by residues from dyeing clothes, ending up in natural waterbodies. On top of that, the consumption of clothes per household per year causes 1.5 tons of CO2. Recently, these realities have been discussed more frequently and have led to fast fashion brands adopting sustainable fashion collections or recycling mechanisms. Usually, these sustainable clothes are prominently tagged with a green label, incentivizing the customer to buy this product. Meanwhile, the “usual” fast fashion clothes are not tagged in any sort of way. But if it is possible to indicate that a product was produced sustainably, why not be transparent about unsustainable production methods as well?

Such indicators are not a new invention. The EU energy labels are an example of labels indicating to the customer whether a product is using energy in an efficient matter. Hence, customers have to confront themselves with the fact that if they buy a certain, non-efficient product this will have negative consequences for the environment and sometimes their wallet through higher energy costs. I suggest implementing a similar approach in the fashion industry. Each piece of clothing shall be labeled according to the level of sustainability of its production. To establish what label should be assigned to each piece of clothing, I suggest analyzing the products on its compliance with the following two major aspects: working conditions (including, inter alia, fair payment, working hours, social and medical security, healthy and safe working place) and the impact on the environment (including, inter alia, sustainable use of resources, responsible waste disposal, transportation). A scoring system can be used to assign points for each indicator, the better the compliance with a particular aspect of sustainable production, the higher the score. Next, the points would be added, and on the basis of the final score the product receives a particular label. The EU Energy Labels include labels from A (most efficient, displayed in green color) until G (least efficient, displayed in red color). Similarly, labels from A (most sustainable, displayed in green) to G (least sustainable, displayed in red) could be used for labelling clothes.

The analysis of the compatibility of fashion labels with WTO law goes beyond the scope of this post. Yet, prima facie it appears that such labels could be considered technical regulations which are not more trade restrictive than necessary to fulfill the legitimate objective of protecting human health and safety and the environment according to art. 2.2 of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. Certainly, the introduction of sustainable product lines or recycling concepts into the business model of fast fashion brands is a step into the right direction. Still, the low prices and the intrusive advertising of fast fashion on social media are encouraging people to constantly keep buying new clothes. But what if, looking at a piece of clothing in a store, people were shown the real price paid for their desire to be fashionable? Only transparency can lead to more responsible consumers and ultimately, to an increase in the demand for more sustainable products. And like that, hopefully one day, different labels will not be needed anymore, as all clothes would be carrying a green tag on them.



Image credits: Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash