23 Apr 2020

COVID-19 reminds us it's time for a new Fashion Revolution

Cotton farmers, mill labourers, garment workers, fashion brands and retail workers are all being affected by the pandemic. Will this push fashion to change for the better?

Fashion Revolution Who Grew Your Clothes 870
Knowing who grew and produced your clothes is the first step in holding brands to account in ensuring human rights and environmental standards are respected in the fashion industry.

Life in the world’s textile supply chains is precarious enough at the best of times. A recent report from Traidcraft Exchange notes “The garment industry is a case study of fragility… Workers are typically on low wages and have few savings. Production countries have limited to non-existent social security systems.”

Now cotton farmers, mill labourers, garment workers, fashion brands and retail assistants face the additional impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s an assumption that cotton farmers have not been affected because this year’s cotton crop has already been harvested and sold,” says Arun Ambatipudi, co-founder of the Fairtrade certified Chetna Organic Network in Hyderabad, India. “But there have already been a slew of cancelled, reduced or delayed orders for next year’s harvest, and that means huge uncertainty. Farmers may start to move out of cotton and look for alternative sources of income and other forms of risk diversification unless buyers commit to support them. Without that, will farmers go back to growing Fairtrade organic cotton when the crisis is over?”

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Chetna Organic India cotton farmers
Didier Gentilhomme

It’s not just cotton farmers who are suffering. According to Fashion Revolution, more than a million garment workers in Bangladesh have already been laid off because of cancelled orders totalling more than US$1.5 billion. The Confederation of Indian Industries reports that overall domestic and export demand for cotton has collapsed. “Brands have put all orders on hold for the foreseeable future. This could lead to an 80 percent demand destruction,” it said.

Fairtrade, along with many others campaigning for just and ethical textile supply chains, is supporting Fashion Revolution week from April 20-26 to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,138 people and injured many more in 2013. COVID-19 is a timely reminder of the challenges faced by many of the lowest-paid and most vulnerable in the global fashion industry.

“For some, such as garment workers, the impact of COVID-19 is immediate,” says Sreeranga Rajan, CEO of Fairtrade certified fashion house Dibella India. “For the farmers, it’s less certain - it will be felt in the future, but we’re not sure to what extent. It depends on how different brands react. The smaller ethical brands have committed to covering the costs of cancellations, but the bigger ones have so far not indicated they will do so. This is a real test of brands’ ethical values - do they really mean what they say?”

Even the most sustainable fashion brands are feeling the impacts. Nudie Jeans, which makes and sells Fairtrade organic fashion all over the world, have been forced to scale back operations significantly. “Sales are down everywhere - online, retail and our own stores. We have already closed many of our stores - temporarily we hope - and we have reduced working hours in our office,” says Sustainability Manager Sandya Lang from the company headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Nudie Jeans sources much of its cotton from the Chetna Organic Network. “Most of the factories we work with have closed and it’s having a big impact on the workers, both short and long term,” says Sandya. “In the meantime, we’re trying to prepare as much as possible for when production and retail starts again. At this moment it’s not clear how the pandemic will impact production workers and farmers, but we’re sure it will put them in an even more difficult situation.”

“Transport is a major issue, we can’t get the cotton to the ginning mills [where the seeds are separated and converted to lint fibre] and in any case, the mills are also closed,” says Arun. “As a farmer-owned company, we’re sitting on around 1,200 tonnes of seed cotton - partly stuck with the farmers and partly stuck in the ginning mill - which can’t be converted into lint fibre because the mills are shut down. Payments to farmers have been delayed, and the mill workers are getting no wages - how do you expect them to survive?”

Indian cotton farmers face a double whammy. Future cotton crops are in doubt, but there’s also the immediate challenge of harvesting and selling the rabi [winter] season crops lying in the fields. “Cotton farmers also grow other crops such lentils, wheat, chickpea, pigeonpea, maize and sorghum which they harvest during March and April,” says Arun. “But the lockdown means about 80 percent is still in the fields. You have to remember most of these farmers live in tiny villages, just a few houses, and since the lockdown there has been a total ban on movement between villages - that means labourers can’t get to work and farmers can’t get their crops to the government regulated markets where they get the official Minimum Support Price.”

For Arun and his fellow cotton farmers, it’s clear the long-term solution lies in a complete re-think of global textile supply chains. “We don’t blame the small brands like Nudie Jeans, we understand they have their own problems. They have already committed to paying for the orders they have cancelled, and to buying next year. But the big brands and big retailers - who are the real influencers - are not committing, which gives cotton farmers a very unstable future.”

“We don’t want them to use the crisis as an excuse to squeeze farmers even more,” he concludes. “They should use this as an opportunity to start investing in radical changes in their procurement model, sticking to commitments, so more farmers can be convinced to switch to Fairtrade and organic cotton production.”

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Nudie Jeans