How Fashion Makes Change Centers Women In Climate Action

Working women supply chain

Value-based buying is an important reality of commerce. Consumer alignment with brands that reflect the world as it is—not necessarily a world that is aspirational anymore—is persistent. This trend began before the global pandemic, but it has certainly been accelerated by it and other global events, like Black Lives Matter, as one such example. 

One constant many brands think about is climate change. The worst impacts of climate change will be irreversible between 2030 and 2052, reverberating across many sectors. Sustainable products, practices, and buying will impact the fashion industry, which is projected to be valued at $2.25 trillion by 2025, according to Statista. Sustainability isn’t solely about making products more sustainable or whether organic materials will really save the planet. It’s about thinking more holistically in regard to entire systems and practices within. Change doesn’t begin simply by buying a sustainably made shirt: it’s in the supply chain and the living experience of workers who are producing those products for us to buy. 

Fashion Makes Change, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, is a non-profit organization working in partnership across the fashion ecosystem including brands, investors, and customers to collectively support the livelihoods of women and drive climate action. When Fashion Makes Change debuted last year, Cara Smyth, the organization’s founder and chair, told Vogue, “We have less than 2,700 days left until irreversible climate change. What we need is a collaborative, holistic approach—one where all of those ideas [sustainable strategies] are relevant. if we aren’t worried about renewable energy and regenerative agriculture and the people in the supply chain, we’re going to keep moving at this pace.”

Here, we’ll unpack some of the realities of women—the majority of laborers in the industry—working on the supply chain and how Fashion Makes Change is working toward a more equitable, regenerative future. 

Realities of the supply chain

It’s fair to say that climate change is impacting every aspect of our lives—this is especially visible in the way weather has shifted. Take, for instance, the winter storm that recently devastated Texas. Hurricane seasons are harder on coastal states and countries. Ice in the north is continuously melting and shifting ecosystems. 

Weather is one such immediate vessel through which buyers and businesses understand the realities of climate because extreme weather will impact everything from sourcing raw materials to work at a garment factory or delivery service. Looking solely through this lens removes the individual experience of workers on the factory line at a garment shop. 

Buyers want to understand that process and put real, human faces to experiences and stories. And the statistics reflect that. According to a Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study, 76% of Americans say supporting companies that are addressing social and environmental issues help them feel they are doing their part. Generationally speaking, 83% of millennials say it’s important for the companies they buy from to align with their beliefs and values, according to a 5WPR 2020 Consumer Culture Report, and 90% of Gen Z believes companies must act to help social and environmental issues, also according to a Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study. Gen Z is also willing to put in the work to understand issues in order to make an informed opinion. Part of that work includes knowing what the supply chain looks like now and how ensuring a sustainable future for the planet means working toward education for supply chain workers, brands, and buyers. 

The fashion industry’s history with its laborers has often included vulnerable conditions that millions in supply chain communities have faced. A recent example that shook the industry was the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013 that took over 1,000 lives. Stories like this one occur more than people are willing to acknowledge. There is an urgency to reimagine a value chain to include equity: The global COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the fragility workers face in the supply chain. 

The fashion industry is powered by women. According to Remake, 75 million people work to produce apparel, with 80% of those workers being young women of color between the ages of 18 to 24. Gender equality is a key topic in the fashion industry. Women need better wages and working conditions to gain agency over their lives.

Experience working as a woman is oftentimes unbearable. Women work for less money than their male counterparts while also bearing the responsibilities of running a homelife. Millions of women on the supply chain work for low pay and long hours in unsafe conditions, along with threats of harassment from men in supervision positions of power, according to the Ethical Trading Initiative. Then, they are expected to go home with that little amount of money to feed and care for their families, repeating the cycle every single day. Daughters born into this cycle often are not educated and destined to work under similar conditions and realities. 

There is a strong case for policy to enact change, according to Vogue Business, but these are largely environmentally focused initiatives and suggestions around water pollution, chemicals, and coal emissions. All of those are vital to the success of sustained climate action, but without looking at the systems in place and understanding the interdependence and importance of achieving social equity, it will be difficult to successfully meet any climate action goals. Fashion Makes Change, then, is approaching these global challenges through a wider scope, connecting partners from all over and working toward impactful solutions. 

What is Fashion Makes Change doing to help climate action and gender equality?

Fashion Makes Change sees an opportunity for buyers and brands to come together to understand that awareness leads to action and action can impact someone’s life. The organization builds a community between brands and retailers, working to advance progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Voting with your wallet is important to millennials and Gen Z. But donating, at checkout, for example, enables an additional meaningful interaction between the customer and a cause. Fashion Makes Change is making it easy for customers to support and amplify gender equality and women’s education in communities around the world. 

For International Women’s Day, Fashion Makes Change launched an app with Shopify, powered by Pledge, as a kickoff to this work. The app allows a seamless install for Shopify merchants to round up on checkout pages. All donations, collections, and tracking are automatic. With the app, buyers at checkout round up their total purchase amount, or add an extra dollar, and donate the excess. Participants include retailers such as Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus, and brands like Hill House Home, Sarah Flint, Larroude, Chufy, and Hudson Jeans, among many others. 

Donations will go toward supporting the Empower@Work Collaborative, a joint effort of the United Nations’ ILO-IFC Better Work, BSR’s HERproject, CARE International, and Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E program. Empower@Work members implement training programs addressing needs such as health, financial planning, problem solving and decision-making, and gender equality. Training is designed specifically to better address the complex needs of women working in factories. Empowering women leads the way toward a more sustainable world: Educating women is the sixth-largest mitigator of climate action ranked out of 100 solutions, according to Project Drawdown, with family planning ranked at seventh. Supporting communities by investing in women and girls enables them to be more visible, louder, and curious, and leads to major changes. Girls and women belong at the center of sustainable development conversations. 

Fashion Makes Change is looking to enter a new phase of sustainability, one that reimagines the endeavor from many vantage points. Fashion Makes Change asks how everyone can be part of this positive shift that centers on worker livelihoods: consumers, brands, nonprofits, philanthropy, and media are coming together to use to achieve this transformational shift. 

Fashion as an industry is a shape-shifter, but that can be both exciting and limiting. Sustainable fashion and practices are one step forward into the future of climate action. Now, by including workers, and women, in particular, that action is shifting once more into, hopefully, a future that is brighter, not just for fashion’s buyers, but for the people who produce it.

About the author

Sarah MacDonald

Sarah MacDonald is an arts and culture writer and editor based in Toronto. Her words can be found in the Globe and MailHazlitt, The Walrus, CBC Arts, Elle Canada, VICE, and many more. She launched Commerce In The World, but is the senior content and editorial marketing manager for Canada at Shopify.

Check out Sarah MacDonald’s work