We want to talk with you about Human Rights In Fast Fashion. But firstly, tell us about yourself, your professional journey as a lawyer for the UN, your work as a consultant, and your new online store ICONABLE. Also what drives you to change the fashion industry?
My name is Clara Sharma. I grew up in France where I studied international law and started my career as a lawyer. My job led me to NYC where I worked for a few years and completed a Masters in Human Rights at Fordham University, School of Law. I worked on several research projects on Women’s Rights in partnership with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as projects involving Corporate Social Responsibility. As I focused my work in the fashion industry in particular, I was exposed to the devastating consequences of the clothing industry on Human Rights and the environment.
Last year, in December 2017, I founded Iconable, an online platform dedicated to sustainable fashion. Iconable celebrates brands that are changing the fashion industry by combining sustainability and style.
We recently launched consulting services to assist fashion brands in implementing sustainable and ethical practices as well as communicating and marketing their environmental and social commitments.
It is impossible to sell a $5 t-shirt and say that the worker who made it was paid a fair amount.
LET´S TALK ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS IN FASHION…
Obviously, all ILO human rights are important, worldwide. But what are the human rights you focus your work on and which human rights in the fashion industry need the most support in certain countries?
There are a lot of Human Rights at stake when it comes to the fashion industry and it is hard to pick one as they are all equally important, like the right to adequate living standards, freedom from slavery, the right of peaceful assembly and association. The right to a safe and healthy environment is also a very important one. When we know that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, the protection of our environment by implementing more responsible practices is critical.
Worker´s Rights: 5 years ago, H&M set a goal for 2018 to pay all their workers a fair living wage.
But we have 2018 and according to their website, they even have not yet set a foundation for fair living wages: “However, to be able to set the foundation for fair living wages the industry needs to go together“ H&M.
I think H&M wants a cheap price as this is their business model. Do you think it will ever be possible for fast fashion brands like H&M to pay their workers a fair living wage? As a consultant, do you have a suggestion for them how to achieve this goal?
For any fast fashion company to pay their workers a fair living wage, they will inevitably have to change their business model. It is impossible to sell a $5 t-shirt and say that the worker who made it was paid a fair amount. I agree it is a concerted effort that the entire fashion industry has to make though, and I think we need to include fast fashion companies when talking about how we can make fashion more responsible. However, we also need to understand that the business model of fast fashion brands will never be sustainable as is – it needs to be dramatically changed.
H&M also says: “On the contrary, the best way to fight poverty is free trade and the best way to support the textile worker is to buy products he or she made.“
To me, this means that you have to buy buy buy and don´t stop. But this will create even more unnecessary waste.
How do you think that fair trade and sustainability can be achieved together as the goal of a fast fashion brand?
I agree that we need to keep giving garment workers jobs and the solution is absolutely not to stop producing in these countries, but companies have to take their responsibility and ensure that their workers are treated and paid fairly. This is the essence of corporate social responsibility. Companies need to implement self-regulatory mechanisms to ensure they integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations, even when labor laws are lacking. Companies have long taken advantage of the lack of regulations in developing countries to exploit people for profit and gain. This needs to stop and the best way for it is for companies to become more transparent about their practices. Transparency leads to accountability.
Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, Western fashion companies have made the factories safer through the “Bangladesh Accord“. 100 examiners worked for the Accord and inspected more than 500 factories per month. More than 100 factories have been blacklisted and excluded from further orders.
Now the government is exposing the auditors of the Bangladesh Accord to the country. A disaster for the fashion companies, because now they no longer have “control” over security.
The state authority in Bangladesh now wants to do this work, but they don’t have enough trained engineers. Bangladesh is the second most important fashion supplier after China.
What do you think should fashion brands now do? Is there enough short-term replacement in other countries?
The decision to eject the safety inspectors brought in after the Rana Plaza disaster would have terrible consequences on garment workers. At Iconable, we have been advocating for this Accord to stay in place and published a letter for people to send to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to urge her to keep the Accord. We should know their final decision by December 10th (today) and I truly hope the Accord can continue its tremendous work. In the case of the accord to be ejected, I think companies need to take over and closely monitor their supply chains to ensure the safety of the workers making their clothes. It is the companies’ responsibility to know where their clothes are made and in what conditions. The government of Bangladesh has failed to demonstrate its capacity and political will to regulate the industry, this is why the Accord is essential to protect the safety of its workers. If the Accord were to be forced to leave, then companies need to take their responsibility and implement strong self-regulating mechanisms.
Fast fashion clothes are often poorly made and designed not to last so people keep buying more.
What will happen to the factory workers if in the future robots take over the work? Responsibility: Do you think (fast) fashion brands have the responsibility to keep their jobs?
This is a very interesting question! I think part of the solution is to teach people the skills that the robots cannot do. It comes back to quality over quantity. Fast fashion clothes are often poorly made and designed not to last so people keep buying more. On the opposite, clothes that are well made often require specific skills from the workers who made them that would be harder for a machine to mimic. Training and educating workers will not only empower them but also give them a savoir-faire that will be hard for robots to reproduce.
I also strongly believe that the power is in the hands of the customers.
What are the most difficulties that fashion brands have when they need your advice as a consultant?
A lot of fashion brands have good intention and understand they need to implement more responsible practices, but they are often overwhelmed by the task. From the choice of materials to how to monitor their supply chain, we assist them to step by step in implementing sustainable solutions. We also create campaigns and events to communicate their sustainability performance and show their commitment in a way that will resonate with their customers.
How do you see yourself in 5 years? What is your goal you want to accomplish?
I hope to continue to make Iconable grow and become a reference in the world of sustainable fashion. I also hope we can help more and more companies to become more sustainable and contribute to deeply transform the fashion industry to make it more responsible. I also strongly believe that the power is in the hands of the customers so I am hoping we can continue to raise awareness through Iconable and empower people to make better purchasing decisions.
Our founder Antonia Böhlke did the interview with Clara Sharma.