Why living wage is an essential part of sustainable fashion

With each passing day, fast fashion companies are introducing new sustainability initiatives with the overall goal of improving their bottom line. They tout the importance of recycled polyester, supposed “circularity,” and apparel recycling programs while leaving out many less than favorable truths about these so-called “fixes.” In reality, textile sustainability, and sustainability in general, is about much more than recycling and organic cotton. Here’s why sustainable fashion is so important and why the industry should guarantee a living wage for all its workers.

Why do we need sustainable fashion?

First, let’s discuss why this matters in the first place. Why is fast fashion so bad? How do clothes contribute to the climate crisis?

As the authors of the article Death by waste: case of the circular economy of fashion and textiles“, explain, more than two thirds of textiles go to landfill at the end of their use and barely 15% are recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that in 2018 we discarded more than 9,000 tons of clothing and shoes, compared to the 4.5 thousand tons that were landfilled in the year 2000. Today, every second we throw a load of clothes into a garbage truck.

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Case study: H&M

H&M, like many other fast fashion brands, recently added a sustainability section to its website. Under this tab there is a category called “Let’s be fair” who addresses labor issues in the fashion industry. They specify that “Together, we are working to improve salary management systems in order to ensure that everyone’s individual skills are taken into account”. However, there is no concrete information on what garment workers are actually paid at any of their suppliers. According to H&M Group“China and Bangladesh are the biggest markets for garment production.” The average salary of a textile worker in Shanghai, China is 71,270 yuan or an equivalent hourly rate of 34 yuan, which translates to 23 cents per hour, or US$492 per year. On the other hand, the the living wage in Shanghai is 4,707 yuan ($703) per month.

Note that when big fast fashion retailers such as H&M talk about labor issues, they conveniently say “fair wages” instead of living wages, apparently in the hope that readers will believe these two things are the same. They are not. There is no way to concretely calculate how much a “fair” wage is, but there is a way to calculate a living wage. A living wage is the “remuneration received for a standard week of work by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and his family”, including food, water, shelter, education, care health, transportation, clothing and other essentialsbasic needs. Essentially, it’s how much you need to earn in your area to be able to afford the things necessary for a relatively comfortable life.

H&M also includes a section called “Closing the loop”. Here, the Swedish multinational talks about its clothing recycling and collection program. Once the clothes are collected, they are separated into three different categories, “Rewear, Reuse or Recycle”. In a video titled “H&M and Zara: can fast fashion be eco-friendly? »carr Amanda Coulson-Drasner explains why this “closing the loop” initiative will not solve the underlying problem of fast fashion: we produce and buy too much. The only way to make fashion more sustainable is to simply produce less of it. Much less. Let’s take a deeper look.


Rewear refers to the reuse of used clothing on the second-hand market. However, more than half of second-hand clothing is shipped overseas while the rest is turned into industrial material, burned or landfilled. The Global South essentially serves as a dumping ground for second-hand fast fashion. In 2018, the United States alone exported almost 719 million kilograms (£1.58 billion) in second-hand clothes. But what really happens to second-hand clothes sent overseas? These are usually reused or repurposed by various up-cyclers. However, due to the poor quality of second-hand fast fashion, this is becoming increasingly difficult to do, resulting in much of the clothing ending up in landfills in southern countries.


Reuse refers to clothing that is unsuitable for aftermarket clothing and is transformed into other products. However, Less than 1% material from used clothing is recycled into new clothing. It is unknown how many of the garments are actually repurposed into other items.

To recycle

Recycling refers to clothes that are shredded and reused in various ways. Today, a large part of our clothing is made up of different materials assembled in one piece. Before a part can be reused or recycled, these materials must be separated from each other. This, unfortunately, is not an easy process. If you think of a typical pair of jeans, for example, the cotton yarn they are made with is usually mixed with spandex. But it does not stop there. Jeans usually have other components such as zippers and buttons. Additionally, shredded clothing cannot be reused in new clothing because the fibers are no longer strong enough to perform this function effectively. Instead, they can be used to pad car seats. When you see the “recycled polyester” tag, it means the garment is more likely made from plastic bottles than recycled clothing.

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Why is living wage important for sustainable fashion?

In the book “The Business of Less”, author Roland Geyer explores how paying garment workers a living wage can actually reduce the negative environmental impacts of fashion and textile production. Geyer explains that the work has no impact on the environment and therefore every dollar we spend on it is a dollar free of negative environmental consequences. Elizabeth Cline writes in her article that “raising the wages of the world’s 35 million garment workers by just an extra $100 a week (about what is needed to achieve a living wage in Bangladesh and India) would immediately reduce 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 from the global economy”.

What can consumers do?

Everyone can help support the sustainable fashion movement. This part will seem simpler than it actually is. More than anything, we need to slow down and change the way we think about clothes, as well as everything we consume. First, we need to stop buying so many clothes. Maybe take the No promise of new clothes at ReMake and don’t buy any new clothes for three months. Or maybe even try a purchase-free year. When buying new clothes, spend more money to get a better quality item that will last you much longer. Learn how to fix your clothes when they tear or turn them into something new. Buy natural fibers such as cotton, linen, or wool, so your clothes can actually biodegrade when they’re retired. Learn more with books such as consumes by Aja Barber, overdressed by Elizabeth Cline, and Sewn At the top by Tansy E. Hoskins.

Remember, every garment is sewn by a real person, someone who deserves to be paid enough to support themselves. By slowing down and buying fewer quality pieces, we can send brands a clear message that just one collection of recycled polyester isn’t going to change the world, they actually have to pay their garment workers.

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Michael A. Bynum