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Why Are Fair Wages a Catalyst to Environmental Sustainability in Fashion?

Why Are Fair Wages a Catalyst to Environmental Sustainability in Fashion?

Cassandra Osborn |


May 2, 2022

This is a personal story that’s going to draw a parallel between birthing class and fashion. Yep—it sounds a little out there…but stick with me, and I promise you’ll think about your next clothing purchase very, very differently.

We tend to hold a laundry list of unspoken expectations with most things in our lives. When I was pregnant, I attended a birthing class where we were asked to bullet out a list of 20 things we wanted—or rather, 20 things that we expected—from our upcoming birthing experience.

After listing out things like a natural birth and a doula on my list, the instructor asked us to cut this list down to ten expectations. It felt like a big task to cut out things like our own room and pain management, but my husband and I got the list down to the ten things we wanted in our birthing experience.

Except, then the teacher asked us to cut the list in half again, and we had to part ways with requirements that didn’t end up feeling like requirements when you got down to it. It was very humbling when, again, we were asked to cut down our five items to three, and then three to one.

It’s that “one thing” that made me realize that what we really, truly wish for or desire is actually quite basic. And it’s this thought that made me think of just how many assumptions or expectations go into our daily life experiences, including our fashion choices.

What is Your “Just One Thing” You Won’t Compromise On? 

When you think about your buying preferences, there are surely things that would rank on your “master” list of expectations. Things like promotions, colours, fit, branding, packaging, and free shipping are some of the things we’ve been conditioned to expect as consumers.

But as social issues like labour rights and environmentalism surge to the forefront of fashion’s collective awareness, many consumers are now willing to part with some of these expectations in favour of priorities that serve a higher purpose.

So, perhaps, your big list gets whittled down to half, like in my anecdote above. I can share what my re-prioritized shopping criteria look like when scaling down to the top five things I expect (once I've decided on a particular item):

  1. Fair and living wages paid to garment workers
  2. Products made of natural fibers
  3. A fair and affordable pricepoint
  4. Considered packaging 
  5. Shipped within 3-4 days. 



Looks like a pretty standard list for a sustainability-focused shopper, right? 

Now imagine if you had to cross items off that list until you got to prioritizing just one thing. Until all you’re left with is the thing that is absolutely necessary for your expectations of the brand you’re buying from. Is it free shipping or fancy packaging? Probably not.

At least, I hope not.

Why Paying Fair Wages Should Be Top of Your Fashion List

When we get past the sales and instant-demand stories we’re used to and look at the essence of where fashion comes from, it’s impossible to overlook the humans behind the brands we love. And the human factor is interrelated to other top issues affecting fashion sustainability.

Fashion contributes between 2% to 4% to global emissions that affect climate change, and that contribution is projected to keep growing. And while there are a lot of buzzwords swirling around about sustainability and eco-friendliness, at the end of the day, most brands that are trying to show they’re for the planet aren’t. They’re greenwashing

A Vogue Business analysis found that brands have “no convincing plan” to address and change their role in the climate crisis meaningfully. 

The solution to disrupting this race to the bottom might sound surprising. It’s not about scaling or innovation—it’s about meeting fundamental human needs.

UC Santa Barbara environmental scientist Roland Geyer cites living wages for garment workers as the key to unlocking significant change in the fashion industry. His book, The Business of Less: The Role of Companies and Businesses on a Planet in Peril, is kinda like a guidebook to understanding the role industries play in environmental and social sustainability. For example, Geyer calculates that if the 35 million garment workers in India and Bangladesh received a living wage (about an extra $100 a week), this would immediately cut 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 out of the global economy. And it would help tackle item number one on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal list (ending poverty). 


book cover: The Business of Less by Roland Geyer.


The connection between labour and the environment? It’s a phenomenon called the reverse rebound effect—when dollars are spent on humans and their time, it’s money that is not spent on things with harmful environmental effects. This could be achieved through better wages (and conditions) for garment workers. But it can also be conveyed through premium products that require higher time and skills for production (more time spent, more human time paid). Basically, humans don’t come with a carbon footprint.

The Bigger Picture of Paying What it’s Worth

So, as much as we love the idea of healing the planet and its people through our purchases, the interesting idea behind Grey’s work is that it’s not the actual items we’re buying that drive change; it’s the people behind them. It’s not about buying more or buying what marketing defines as “green” to try and push the market. 

It’s about shifting organizations to aspire for (and achieve) environmental sustainability at all stages of their production and supply chains (or going “net-green”). That includes fair wages paid to the cotton pickers as much as it does to the sewing machine operators or warehouse pickers.

This human-first approach is something that I’ve been super passionate about through my journey building hernest project. You can read more about what we do in articles tackling topics like transparent pricing in fashion or how we are achieving a zero-waste footprint

I’d love to know what your experience was like cutting down your list from “nice-to-haves” to “must-haves” to “just one thing.” So drop me a message on Instagram or send an email and let’s keep raising awareness about achievable sustainability in the fashion industry.