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Intersectional Environmentalism—What Does It Mean for the Denim Industry?

Stemming from a desire to confront the damage its waste-making ways have waged on the environment, the fashion sector has rolled out a multitude of sustainable advancements in recent seasons. Material innovations, traceability technology and upcycling initiatives have all become common tactics for brands looking to curb their ecological output.

But a global pandemic has laid bare the industry’s most toxic effects on the people at the heart of its supply chain. The term “intersectional environmentalism” has been quietly gaining traction, bolstered by a growing understanding that garment workers—most of whom are women—stand to bear the brunt of the industry’s failures.

“Intersectional environmentalism in fashion is advocating for both people and the planet over profit, ensuring race and privilege fall under the umbrella of sustainability,” said Kayla Marci, Edited market analyst. “The movement identifies how marginalized people of color are often left out of the conversation, yet are the most vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts such as pollution and climate change.”

Despite the fact that shoppers are becoming savvy, “brands are still using sustainability as a box-ticking exercise, trying to offset their environmental footprint through a one-off organic collection or recycling initiative when it is a complex and multi-faceted concept,” Marci added. For companies to become truly sustainable, “their efforts need to also protect and give back to the poor communities of color who experience injustices from the industry’s processes,” she said.

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Issues persist throughout the supply chain—from the beginning of a garment’s life cycle, where workers are faced with poor working conditions, inadequate compensation and wage theft, through the end of a product’s life, when it’s discarded in a landfill that is often adjacent to an underserved Black or brown community, Marci said. “This often-neglected demographic is most affected by the fashion industry.”

“It really comes down to two things—climate justice and gender justice,” Remake founder and CEO Ayesha Barenblat. “Without human rights and without gender justice, there really cannot be a sustainability movement. These two issues go hand in hand.”

According to Remake’s data, there are 70 million workers in the global apparel and textile industry, and “it’s one of the only manufacturing industries in the world that’s predominantly powered by women.” In some prominent sourcing locales, more than 80 percent of workers are female.

These individuals are “on the front lines of climate shocks,” Barenblat said, because the natural resources in their communities have been pillaged “to enrich Western brands.” What’s more, these women are also dealing with rampant human rights abuses—an issue that has come to light throughout the pandemic as brands canceled orders with their suppliers, and in turn, factories reneged on paying their workforces.

“A downward pressure on price has automatically resulted in a downward pressure on wages,” she said. “This was already happening pre-pandemic, but in the pandemic it has really cracked wide open.” As brands panicked and pulled back on commitments, the inherent “inequities that exist within the fashion system” have been exacerbated, Barenblat asserted, leaving workers’ livelihoods hanging in the balance.

That vulnerability makes them ripe targets for abuse. “Outside of the wage conversation, something that’s also often forgotten is how much sexual harassment and violence exists inside the factories and in the communities,” she added. Workers often operate under intense pressure to reach productivity targets, creating the “perfect storm for gender-based violence” when male factory managers dole out disciplinary measures. “Women have often left the safety of their homes and villages—whether from rural Myanmar or in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka—and arrive at boarding houses in big cities without protections in place,” she added.

Impacts on people also exist upstream in the supply chain, Barenblat added. The Chinese government’s abuses of the Uyghur Muslims, for example, have been widespread and well-documented, with the Biden administration formally characterizing the actions— including mass detentions, sterilizations and forced labor—as a genocide, and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passing earlier this year. In recent seasons, though, apparel companies, including denim brands, have found themselves at the center of the controversy for their continued reliance on Xinjiang for both factory labor and cotton crops.

Third-party certifications from well-meaning organizations have long focused on the environmental effects of material generation while missing the human impact, Barenblat said. “If chemical-free cotton is picked by people who essentially have no rights, then that’s not sustainable,” she added. “If you’re only going to look at the environmental standards without looking at them, then it’s a complete myth.”

The concept of intersectional environmentalism boils down to embracing “the biodiversity of thought when it comes to addressing our current climate crisis,” added Aditi Mayer, a fashion sustainability and labor expert for non-profit Intersectional Environmentalist. It’s important that brands and consumers understand that there are certain power dynamics at play within the fashion supply chain stemming from the makeup of its workforce, and those perspectives must be acknowledged in order to force real change, she said.

Mayer has spent the better part of four years organizing alongside garment workers in Downtown Los Angeles—a market that employs which employs some 50,000 people, many working to create denim and jeans. The sector operates as a “largely underground and informal economy” because of its many undocumented workers, she said, and that dynamic has led to a culture of worker docility even in the face of injustice.

“It’s really important to see how identity is weaponized in a lot of different ways,” she added. “When workers do attempt to speak out against instances of worker abuse and wage theft, time and time again we see instances of employers saying, ‘If you speak out, we’ll have [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] called on you.’”

The piece rate model long represented a legal loophole for factories, which were able to pay workers per garment produced, rather than adhering to California’s minimum wage, Mayer said. In previous decades, the piece rate “mirrored” the minimum wage, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years. “Couple that with the rise of fast fashion—an industry built on speed and scale at all costs,” she said. “You now have this dynamic where workers are working around the clock, and it’s exacerbating health and safety concerns.”

The Garment Worker Protection Act (SB-62), which passed last fall, eliminates the piece-rate model and gives garment workers access to the same minimum wage enjoyed by others in the state. By July, California will become the first state in the country to reach a $15 minimum wage, and Los Angeles County is considering augmenting the rate even further.

“For so long, the sustainability narrative has acutely focused on environmental impact and not how to include the human dimension of labor as a key element of that,” Mayer said. “When we look at this issue through the lens of intersectional environmentalism, the people and the planet become front and center—and that’s an important shift. Brands that are touting sustainability can’t ignore the conversation of human rights.”