Extreme heat and flooding are threatening key international apparel hubs, with four countries vital to the fashion industry facing losses of 1 million jobs and $65 billion in earnings by 2030, according to two new ILR School reports.

The “Higher Ground?” reports, which examine how workers and the industry can adapt to climate change and approve working conditions in the apparel sector, were published Sept. 13 by the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University and Schroders, an investment management firm.

Fashion, the third highest global producer of greenhouse gases, focuses its climate change efforts on mitigation goals such as increasing use of recycled fabrics and reducing water usage, according to the reports. But fashion largely ignores the effects of climate breakdown on workers, communities and industries producing the world’s garments.

The first report, “Fashion’s Climate Breakdown and its Effect for Workers,” focuses on 32 apparel production centers vulnerable to heat and flooding due to climate change. The second report, “Climate Resilience and Fashion’s Costs of Adaptation,” focuses on six brands in the major apparel production countries, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam, where 10,000 apparel and footwear factories employ 10.6 million workers.

“Our work addresses the risks of fashion staying on the low road of mitigation. Workers’ health and income would be even more highly threatened than it is now, and the industry would face long-term losses,” said Jason Judd, executive director of the institute. “The ‘higher ground’ approach would improve worker wellness, job creation, export earnings and the viability of the industry,” he said.

Fashion industry’s environmental impact is largely unknown – here’s why

How do the clothes you buy wear out the natural world? To take stock of the damage you have to account for the materials, water and energy that went into making a garment, and the greenhouse gas emissions, chemical pollutants and other byproducts associated with its disposal.

For example polyester, a kind of plastic widely used in T-shirts, is made from oil – a fossil fuel. If you throw it out it degrades slowly, and chemicals from its dyes and surface treatments leach into the soil.

The UK consistently buys more garments than any other European country, spending more than £45 billion (US$56 billion) annually. Fast fashion, an industry trend which involves getting cheap reproductions of catwalk designs out to a mass market as quickly as possible, encourages this buying frenzy.

Much of fast fashion is known to depend on sweatshop labour and polluting factories. But alongside the demand for ever faster fashion at low prices, there is a growing awareness among consumers that something has to change.

Some firms have caught on: many brands now report their environmental footprint and have disclosed their intention to shrink it.

But how trustworthy are these assessments? My research uncovers how the fashion industry collates, analyses and assesses environmental impact data. Unfortunately, as a result of inaccurate and unreliable methods, among other issues, the true cost of fast fashion remains largely unknown.

Fast fashion adds to the strain on garment workers. Frame China/Shutterstock The hidden price tag

A multitude of metrics, certification schemes and labels mark the environmental consequences of making and selling clothing. Brands have been accused of greenwashing due to the poor quality of information used in some of them.

One common product-labelling tool within the industry was the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. Introduced in 2011, the Higg Index was a rating system used by several large brands and retailers to determine and report the global warming impact and water consumption of different products, among other environmental measures.

Fashion’s sustainability reckoning

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COPENHAGEN — On the surface, it was everything you would expect from a high-end fashion industry knees-up.

Green juice for breakfast, impeccably dressed conference-goers, Moët & Chandon flowing before dinner.

But the topic at the heart of this year’s Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen was less glamorous: How can a sector that has thrived on novelty and extravagance survive global efforts to slash carbon emissions and eliminate waste?

From bringing more transparency to supply chains to developing more sustainable manufacturing methods, panels revolved around how the fashion industry can fall in line with upcoming EU and U.S. regulations — sharp-ish.

That’s with good reason. The bloc’s textiles industry faces an onslaught of regulation that could force a reckoning over its environmental and human rights abuses.

The EU’s textile and clothing sector had a turnover of €147 billion — and trillions globally — in 2021, according to industry body Euratex. All of that economic activity has caused significant environmental damage, including chemical pollution caused by viscose factories, mountains of textile waste and a hefty carbon footprint.

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