Although Gottfried Keller was right when claiming that clothes make people, particularly the way that clothes are produced, consumed or disposed does so much more – in regards to human rights abuses or environmental damage, for instance. Diana Sanabria, who engages with exactly that topic as a policy officer for the global economy, provides valuable insights.

 Dear Ms. Sanabria, thank you very much for agreeing to an interview with Pressenza and talking about your work. The global textile industry is often criticized. For instance, multiple reports illustrate various shortcomings of so-called ´Sweatshop regimes´ which are particularly established in developing countries. What exactly does the term ´Sweatshop regime´ refer to?

“Basically, a sweatshop regime refers to a regime that employs workers under bad conditions. Often those regimes are located in countries where the governmental control over legal standards is weak – if labor or environmental standards exist at all.“

Why do such regimes exist?

“Sweatshop regimes exist as the current economic system allows it. An economic system that operates primarily for economic benefits and at best free from any regulations, unpreventably objectivizes human rights and detrimental effects on the environment to mere externalities. Put differently, this implies that humans and the environment bear costs which are generated by companies.“

Can you give a concrete example of that? How far does this allow for human rights abuses to happen?

“A concrete example is wages. Let´s start with a factory, which is producing for a European fashion brand. This fashion brand intends to buy as cheap as possible which implies that producers who want to obtain an order have to make the cheapest offer. In order to do so, costs will be externalized by, amongst others, paying breadline wages to workers. Unfortunately, this systematic exploitation is supported by versatile legal regulations globally.”

Does a breadline wage mean that people can live from that?

 “No, not necessarily and very often even a legally defined minimum wage can be a breadline wage. In countries such as, for example, Colombia, India or Pakistan, in which a legally defined minimum wage exists, this amount is not sufficient to cover living expenses and costs for food, education or healthcare, for instance. This leads to families prioritizing the education of their children over proper food for the whole family.“

What other concrete cases of human rights abuses are caused by this system?

 “Human rights abuses in this context are versatile. On one hand, we are talking about child labor on cotton farms, violence or sexual harassment along the supply chain, for instance. One must remember that about 80% of the workers in the textile industry are female. Furthermore, we are speaking of working hours that do absolutely not represent what is legally or internationally considered as consensus. Partly, we are also talking of forced labor, of health risks as well as limited freedom of association.“

Why has the global textile industry developed in that direction?

“This particularly results from the fact that many privileges of corporates as entities are not reflected within society. Do corporates, for instance, appropriately contribute to the common good?

In this context, I am not only referring to the society in which a corporation is based in but all humans that are in any way related to entrepreneurial activities: workers in Bangladesh, customers in Germany or Brazilian cotton farmers. Some voluntarily live up to their social responsibility whereas others only react if regulations are in place. In many cases, profits are still valued above all. However, is this really always for the benefit of everyone?“

Human rights abuses are one area concerned. Are there any other areas which are influenced negatively?

“Although one may not directly link those two areas, the environmental consequences because of the textile industry are tremendous. For instance, many dangerous chemicals are utilized in order to guarantee a certain quality of fabrics. The discharge of those in nearby rivers destroys ecological systems. Furthermore, the immense use of water to produce clothes is an issue. In order to produce one t-shirt alone, about 2,700 liters of water are needed. Considering that about 80 billion pieces of clothes are sold annually, and many more produced, one can roughly imagine how much water is needed for this.

Another aspect is the greenhouse gas emissions due to the textile industry which amounts up to 10% of the global CO2 emissions globally. This represents more than aviation and maritime transport produce together. However, the probably most shocking matter concerns waste. We are talking about 92 million tons per year, i.e., three tons per second. That is a scandal.“

Ironically, those implications seem to not touch the global demand for clothes. How come?

“In this context, I reluctantly refer to demand without further comment. Many people buy clothes not out of necessity, but because they desire them. This goes hand in hand with the so-called fake democratization of the privilege to have fashionable clothes which are promoted by intentional marketing operations. Due to those, potential customers are convinced that they can and must want to appear privileged as well. This in combination with a lack of information on the shortcomings within the textile industry leads to a high clothes consumption.“

Do costumers who do not inform themselves properly thus carry the main responsibility?

“Customers bear part of the responsibility. For instance, you have to inform yourself through the Fashion Checker. However, one must not make the mistake and hand over the main responsibility for sustainable consumption to the customers. Who does always inform her-/himself in advance? Especially considering that information is often not freely available and that corporates are mainly responsible for the production of clothes, those must be taken into consideration more.“

What role do political actors play in this context?

“Human and environmental laws need effective protection which can only be guaranteed through regulations. A good example is the pharma industry. You cannot sell any medication without complying with certain standards. This is exactly where political actors come into play as corporates reluctantly internalize previously externalized costs. A good example of one such regulation is the so called Supply Chain Act which involves several regulations to protect human and environmental rights along the supply chains.“

I completely agree with you. Many thanks for the interesting insights and all the best for your further work!