Fashion supply chain sustainability: Clean Clothes Campaign

sostenibilità nelle filiere della moda

Originally founded in 1989 in the Nederlands and today spread in 14 European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Norvey, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK) the Clean Clothes Campaign represents the biggest textile trade union and NGOs alliance which works with about 250 world organizations.

Its main activity areas are related to fashion supply chains sustainability, in particular:

They all concern working conditions improvements in the clothing industry and defend fundamental workers rights, and are realized through awareness, research, direct actions and cooperation activities.

Globalisation price

If we focus on the present situation

  • Flexibility at work and subsequent structural crisis
  • A functional divide in the organisation of production and consumption between sourcing companies (brands and retailers), on one hand, and export-oriented manufacturers, on the other.

it becomes clear that:

  • Sourcing companies focus on conceptualising the product (design, research, and innovation) and distribution (marketing, advertising), while the labour-intensive processes are outsourced.
  • Separating themselves from material production processes, sourcing companies have saved on wage costs and social security expenditures. They have transmitted the burden of labour demands from high-wage organised sectors of the labour market to low-wage and less-organised sectors of the labour market.
  • In this type of dual labour market, a company seeks to capitalise the use value of a small number of highly qualified labourers like managers, technicians, designers, innovators, sometimes called symbolic workers – who conceptualise, oversee, manage and reintegrate globally fragmented labourer processes.
Image by matham315 from Pixabay

Only this small group of ‘core’ workers are essential to the company and kept in-house. They are given stable contracts, job security and high wages, while the labour-intensive aspects of production are performed by a ‘peripheral’ workforce, which can be bought.

  • It all results in a de-territorialised production system in which sourcing companies do not need to pay attention to labour maintenance requirements. Workers can’t even rely on the support of legislation.
  • Social reorganisation of the work process (subcontracting, sweatshops, home-work) has occurred in ways that isolate workers and prevent collective organisation and its earning and status benefits.

Why is it so difficult to achieve in globalised industries some result?

  • The repression of political rights and trade unions in important production countries.
  • Employers often use acts of discrimination against union members or workers suspected of engaging in organising activity.
  • Factories are located in areas with large labour pools, while the skill level required is generally low. The existence of a ‘reserve army’ of labour can be used to discipline individual workers, or the shifting of manufacturing facilities in reaction to collective workers actions. The redundancy of workers can also be used to cut wage costs and intensify the work level. Lack of alternative employment means that many workers think twice about risking their jobs.
  • Lack of resources, such as an informed workforce, time, money, or a local management who understand the importance of the freedom of association and collective bargaining.
  • Unequal gender relations. Young women (or teenage girls) are often recruited because employers consider them docile, tireless, and naturally suited to perform repetitive work.
  • The way production is fragmented among many production sites and countries makes it difficult to achieve collective organisation. Sourcing companies spread production over dozens of countries and (often) hundreds of suppliers. This divide-and-rule strategy reduces labour’s bargaining power and makes it possible to exploit the locational rigidity of workforces.
  • The precarious (‘flexible’) nature of employment: workers who have temporary or seasonal contracts are never certain that their contracts will be renewed.
  • Emerging of the global supply chain has altered the balance of power between employers and unions and weakened traditional regulatory mechanisms associated with the state.
  • International outsourcing has detached corporations from the specific communities and specific labour pools associated with them. Corporations can pit workers in different localities and different geographical jurisdictions against one another.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Corporations structural power

A structural power is expressed when the purchasing departments of branded corporations decide not to source from unionised factories or when they massively place orders from countries where worker rights are systematically repressed.

The ability to relocate production is another example of the ‘structural power’ uniquely available to corporations.

Deregulation and neo-liberal policies have urged many governments to restructure the labour sector to suppress trade union activity and promote flexible labour.

While legal rights and protections for corporations have been dramatically extended and increasingly institutionalised through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), regional and/or bilateral trade agreements.

Macro-economic trends

The transnational fragmentation of production has turned wages into an international cost of production instead of a local source of demand.

The organisational split between global-sourcing companies and export-oriented manufacturers has undermined the link between labour cost in the production sphere and consumer purchasing power in the market sphere.

Two dangerous developments are emerging.

First: given that most non-labour production costs are stable and more or less equal among the various industrialising countries, the flexible costs (i.e., labour) will remain under a downward pressure.

Secondly, the increasing excess of production capacity means that profits can only be maintained by cutting costs.

Falling export prices triggered by growing industrial output at the labour-intensive end of the chain, might result in increased levels of exports through lower wages, and/or export prices that fall faster than volumes increase.

The integration of the world economy might therefore be accompanied by a growing international disparity in wages, labour costs and labour standards, which is often referred to as the ‘race to the bottom’.

fashion supply chains sustainability
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Micro-economic trends

Macro-economic trends are the aggregates of the micro-economic practices of individual companies.

Brand-named corporations, retailers and agents organise how they purchase their products from manufacturers (or suppliers/ vendors).

Purchasing practices that contribute to, or further deteriorate, poor working conditions are often associated with

  • unstable relationships with the manufacturers
  • widely fluctuating orders
  • demanding shorter lead times
  • price-setting policies

Many of these practices are designed to transfer the risks to the supplier.

While this sourcing model grants buyers a lot of flexibility, it leaves suppliers with little or no incentive to invest in their workforce, to increase productivity, or change their ‘sweatshop’ business strategies that are predicated on poor working conditions.

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD): mandatory policies in Europe?

At the end of January 2021, the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament adopted an important report requesting the European Commission to submit a formal proposal for an EU due diligence law.

The report will be put to a vote during the first March 2021 plenary.

Later, the European Parliament and the EU’s 27 Member States will have to agree on the text for it to come into force.

Source and Insights

The present text is an excerpt from the following article:

Jeroen Merk, “The structural crisi of Labour Flexibility: Strategies and Prospects for Transnational Labour Organizing in the Garment of Sportswear Industries “, Clean Clothes Campaign 2008

Fashioning justice. A call for mandatory and comprehensive human rights due diligence in the garment industry, Clean Clothes Campaign, January 2021

(Highlight image by stokpic from Pixabay)

Ethical fashion vs label


Fashion details often make difference. Colours, prints, a particolaur style. But what do we know about a garment label?

Does it make you able to figure out the production chain hidden behind a probable global product?

  • Who, where and how has been manufactured the item we are going to buy?
  • How many phases have been taken from raw materials to manufacturing and distribution, and finally to end consumers?

Today clothing labels usually must report:

  • Manufacturer, importer, distributor or brand name
  • Fabric fiber composition in percentage
  • Maintenance instructions

Any other information about production phases or fiber quality is merely optional.

In the absence of an international regulation able to show the effective observance of labour, wealth, environment and safety conventions, market has been organized producing social and environmental self-certification tools.

We are talking about codes of conduct: ethical standards or certifications born with the intent of declaring to consumers social and enviroment behaviour conformity. Shall consumers trust them?

Towards transparency: auditing and certifications

Firstly, to distrust unilateral corporate declarations is recommended. If stakeholders debate (workers, trade union, NGOs, communities and local authorities, who are all subject to company positive or negative behaviours) is missing, it is impossible to verify reality and any certification has a concrete value.


As regards international production chains and certifications, the key point is to identify supervisory entities about labour fundamental concerns (decent wage, gender discrimination, freedom of trade union association, precariousness of contracts).

Auditing: a multistakeholder solution

In order to remedy commercial auditing systems structural gaps, multistakeholder experiences have emerged. The aim is to entrust monitoring and auditing tasks to independent third-party organizations, as alternative to the growing business of social inspections, which is not suitable because of its commercial nature and dependence on contractor.

As concerns multistakeholder solutions, Fair Wear Foundation has the more advanced experience in European textile industry.
Ethical Trade Initiative and Fair Labour Association are respectively English and American institutions.

What alternative to mainstream trade?

How to orient?
Fair trade movement has been the first to retrain relationships between North and South. CEeS has created economic partnerships to support small producers development, giving access to North markets to their products with prices which are fair towards producers and trasparent towards consumers, through pre-financing and other support forms intended for local communities.

Besides products coming from Italian fair trade organizations, Fairtrade Italia certified products are on market.

This brand declares to respect fair trade criteria as regards agriculture, certifying that garment cotton is 100% fair trade cotton, GMO free. Fairtrade certified cotton involves methods of Integrated Pest Management.

Products coming from fair trade (or Fairtrade certified products) range from clothing to underwear, shoes and accessories. They come from long chains if we consider a geographic point of view (Asia, Africa, Latin America), but they are based on close cooperation.

Sustainable fashion

Moreover, there are green, eco-friendly products, developed in order to reduce ecological footprint, using rigorously natural organic fabrics, treated with natural dyes, as the aim is to reduce non-recyclable waste.

If a product is certified organic, it means it concerns the whole chain. It involves the maximum containment of sintetic and chemical products use, by adopting organic products and alternative production processes where possible, to minimize impact on people and environment.

Organic certification means no pesticides, no dangerous chemical fertilizers and GMO free. During manifacturing process no harmful chemical substances are used, alkalines are recycled and not released in water and all waste is treated.

Second hand and vintage fashion is a good alternative too: it originates in in the 60s, when hippies and protesters first had the idea to creatively revisit old clothes coming from local markets.
Vintage clothing and accessories can be found in in specialized stores, street markets and exhibitions. Often they are collected, processed and reconditioned by social cooperatives.
Barter is a good practice too, present in Italy thanks to specialized exhibitions and self-managed exchange initiatives.


Ethical fashion: how many choices in summary?

Fair trade

Agices (Italian fair trade general association) fair trade accredited organizations display their products at specialized stores or online.

Short production chain

Short chains, solidarity chains, social cooperation chains. They enhance local production, employment of vulnerable people, social rehabilitation in prison, self-management, recovered and unionized companies.


Garments coming from companies involved in multistakeholder auditing initiatives as for example Fair Wear Foundation, Ethical Trade Initiative, or Social Accountability.


Voluntary labels

Voluntary eco-labels certified garments such as::


Natural and organic fiber garments, treated with organic or low environmental impact dyes. In case product certification is missing, make sure at least raw material is certified.


Garments manufactured by companies adopting virtuous policies as regarding energy efficiency, waste cycle management, recycling and reuse of materials practices, packaging concerns.

Vintage/Second Hand

Garments and accessories rigorously used, but unmistakable rétro styled.

Cruelty Free

Garments obtained without animal cruelty and without using components tested on animals.


Deborah Lucchetti – I vestiti nuovi del consumatore. Guida ai vestiti solidali, biologici, recuperati: per conciliare estetica ed etica nel proprio guardaroba. Altreconomia Edizioni

The price of free (film)

Ready-to-future: the sustainable lightness of textiles

Sustainable design: sustainable means bearable, tolerable. But what do you mean by design?

Design is an evolutionary process based on the generation of ideas, aimed at creating a product.

Research and development activities are crucial in this process, where function, aesthetic quality and market demands require a more than careful negotiation work.

Design should therefore be considered as a search for the most suitable solution to solve the problems raised during this phase, through analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

That is, it should allow you to go back from one stage to another in product development, to get the best solution.

Impact of design on production

Textile system operates today mainly using non-renewable resources in the production of products that are then used for a short time, finishing in incinerators or in landfills.

Production methods of any product and social and environmental impact of those necessary to manufacture them are some of the key factors that every designer should face in every new project.

Let’s think of a simple cotton fabric. Even if we imagine it is as natural, different aspects underline its low sustainability:

    • Use of large quantities of water for cultivation
    • High risk of fresh water contamination from outflow fertilizers and pesticides
    • Salinisation of soils due to excessive water sampling for crops
    • Likely use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
Cotton Plantation

Therefore, summarized from an environmental point of view, the main problems may concern:

  • Water consumption (In textile industries, in addition to generating steam, it is used as a means to remove impurities, to apply color and fixing agents)
  • Energy consumption
  • Harmful substances to human health (both for workers and for consumers)
  • Harmful substances to the ecosystem (CO2 emissions, for example in the trasport from distribution chains to retail: and greenhouse effect: the gases emitted by textile production are greater than the combination of those produced by international flights and maritime shipments)
  • Packaging and waste processing
  • Planned obsolescence, whereby a product ends up in landfill almost new

In Countries where environmental legislation is weak (or wherever they try to elude it, winking at the phenomenon of market globalization), many toxic compounds are likely to end up in streams and soils, and can also be transported away from their source of origin through ocean and atmospheric currents.

Even through simple domestic washing, various types of synthetic garments can release plastic microfibers, of which about half a million tonnes each year contribute to ocean pollution.


Designers and consumers role

Since 80% of the economic and environmental product costs is the result of the pre-production design phases, designers play a key role in the creation of products that have the minimum social and environmental impact.

An environment-friendly design is sustainable: consumers themselves should demand the assurance that materials used for production are properly found and that manufacturing methods provide for the minimum energy use.

In fashion system, where too many chains are lost in the opacity of submerged economy and in global production networks, we are called as consumers to ask questions about the origin and the actual quality of our clothes, (and by quality we mean the social / environmental impact of production, as well as the quality of a product), without taking anything for granted and distrust appearances.

Even ethics in fact risks today to become a market product and a marketing tool if it doesn’t concretize and remains only a unilateral and facade declaration of intent.

Purchasing power: how to choose what (not) to buy

What are for attentive consumers the spy indicators to orient themselves in choosing their purchases?


As consumers, we have the right / duty to know in which Countries production has taken place, how the production chain is composed, who are the suppliers and where they operate.

Through this information it becomes possible to assess the level of social and environmental risk connected to the product and to activate independent audits, through trade associations, experts, campaigns.


Price structure synthesizes the distribution of the so-called “added value” along the entire production chain and describes the distribution of power among the different actors.

Transparent prices do not say yet whether the price acknowledged to every actor in the supply chain is right and allows him to live in dignity, but at least clarifies whether we are in the presence of speculative and asymmetric phenomena.

An example is the source price in agriculture, which indicates the first price at which farmers sell their product. In this way it highlights how much profits – behind producers and consumers – the distributive segment.

One slice for each

Client companies have specific responsabilities when they decide to outsource their production.

Social rights and respect for the environment must be guaranteed at all stages in whatever Country they are carried out.

A self-certified code of conduct not negotiated with trade union, as well as a social certification that does not avail of surprise inspections, are vitiated at the origin.

A “Stakeholder engagement” verifies wheter company declarations of intent are reflected in reality of facts, through the listening of consumers, workers, associations, and local authorities.

Principles of circular economy

The concept of circular economy relates to an alternative conception of production and consumption compared to the current model, and is based on three fundamental principles:

  1. Avoid waste and pollution
  2. Design longer-lasting products, developed for upgrading, reuse, recycling, ageing and repair
  3. Regenerate natural systems (e.g. by preferring the use of renewable energies in lieu of fossil fuels, or by bringing nutrients to the ground to allow regeneration)
The sun as a source of renewable energy

In conclusion, to initiate a real change in today’s world, designers should imagine not only how products will be manufactured and used, but also (or above all) how they will be disposed of.


Deborah Lucchetti – I vestiti nuovi del consumatore. Guida ai vestiti solidali, biologici, recuperati: per conciliare estetica ed etica nel proprio guardaroba. Altreconomia Edizioni

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