Sustainable Fashion Starts by Eliminating Child Labor

Until children are taken out of the fashion-industry equation, victory over supply chains can’t be claimed.

(Photo: Jeff Holt/Getty Images)

Aug 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Amy DuFault is a sustainable fashion writer, consultant as well as Digital Content & Communications Director at the Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator

How can we call sustainable-fashion supply chains “sustainable” when there is so much slave labor involving children at the heart of it all? From artisanal gold mining to unregulated fashion manufacturing, 57 million children and 69 million adolescents are kept from getting an education at this very moment.

More than half of them are girls.

This traceability has never been more necessary for brands to even initiate the claim that they have created a “consciously made” garment. After all, what’s the worth of an organic cotton dress when a child has been forced to make it?

With the launch of the International Labour Organization’s “50 for Freedom” campaign to end modern slavery, which coincided with World Day Against Child Labor, “sustainably made” just got a new platform.

Houtan Homayounpour, who works with the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour and the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work branch of the ILO, says forced labor in the fashion industry affects all population groups, young and old, male and female, and these individuals are frequently drawn from minority or socially excluded groups.

“Making sure that there is a strong legal framework in countries and that laws are enforced is part of the solution. Making sure that decent employment opportunities exist is also part of the solution.... There is not a magic solution, nor a one-size-fits-all solution,” Homayounpour said. “Unfortunately slavery and forced labor is a reality today, and our campaign is asking countries to ratify the new protocol which can help combat it.”

One country that has had issues with child labor is India.

A new “Make in India” campaign—whereby the country has declared that it wants to end child labor while allowing for children under 14 to work for “family enterprises”—has advocacy groups in an uproar. The Los Angeles Times recently wrote that the new government proposal “could actually push more youngsters into the workforce, jeopardizing their education and putting them at greater risk of exploitation.” With more than 45 million people employed directly in India’s textile and garment industry, it’s easy to see how children might get lost in the shuffle.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, says child labor persists in too many countries, and despite having laws against child labor, India is struggling to respect the rights of the young.

“The expansion of the fashion industry is only a threat to children where there is a culture of impunity,” said Burrow, who added that education and creating viable skills are the best chance for both quality jobs and democratic power.

“Where people know their rights and have the confidence that comes from education, governments find it harder to hide inaction behind platitudes. People benefit as individuals from education but the economy benefits as well from the productivity generated by higher skill,” she said.

Burrow recently served on a panel discussion with delegates attending the International Labour Conference in Geneva to draw attention to the “50 for Freedom” campaign.

“The ‘50 for Freedom’ is achievable within a couple of years, but the challenge is for business and governments not just to ratify or support this law but to renew their own moral compass and refuse to do business where slavery exists,” she said.

In an age of fast fashion and an addiction to cheap clothing, that might be easier said than done.