It’s no secret that climate change threatens the world’s food supplies, from coffee to corn - but how about your clothes?
Researchers warned this month that worsening heat and flooding could have devastating impacts for Asia’s fashion sector, including on productivity, jobs and industry earnings.
Labour experts are urging garment manufacturers to invest more in building resilience to extreme weather and governments to expand social protection for workers, as well as giving them a bigger say in decisions that will affect their livelihoods.
Here’s more on the emerging climate threats - and what businesses can do to tackle them:
How will climate change disrupt the fashion industry?
Two reports published this month by the Global Labor Institute (GLI) at US-based Cornell University and investment manager Schroders found increased flooding and rising heat could deprive four key garment-producing countries - Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam - of US$66 billion in export revenues by 2030, and more than US$1.4 trillion by 2050, compared to what they could earn if they adapted effectively to the threats.
High heat and humidity can leave workers exhausted and ill, reducing their capacity, said the researchers, while floods can stop them from reaching their workplaces, cutting their income.
In Bangladesh, for example, a third of factories could be subjected to above-normal river and coastal flooding by 2030.
At the end of the day (in extreme heat), workers feel that they don’t have any strength, even to walk home.
Kalpona Akter, executive director, Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity
To help deal with this, they could raise their foundations, set up systems to allow the floodwater to pass through rather than around buildings, or even move buildings to less flood-prone areas where feasible, the research said.
Report co-author Jason Judd, GLI’s executive director, said climate hazards will slow industry growth and productivity in the four countries with tropical and sub-tropical climes, as well as several other garment production hubs across Asia, Africa and Central and South America.
That slower growth could prevent close to 1 million jobs from being created by 2030, the study showed - a number that could rise as high as 8.6 million by 2050 unless effective measures are taken to adjust to climate shifts.
What climate adaptation measures have garment makers put in place?
Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, said most garment factories have yet to take precautions to deal with climate risks for their labour force.
“At the end of the day (in extreme heat), workers feel that they don’t have any strength, even to walk home,” she said.
Workers must be protected from climate hazards, rights activists told a recent conference on “just transition” in the fashion industry organised by the Awaj Foundation, a Dhaka-based labour rights NGO.
“With rising heat, it becomes harder and harder to pursue our factory work in the long run, as we face mounting health problems,” said Urmi Akhter, a garment worker and union leader.
Few workers can afford air-conditioning at home, she added.
Another major threat is flooding along rivers and in coastal areas, which is becoming more frequent and severe in apparel production hubs like China’s Guangdong and Bangladesh’s Chattogram.
In Pakistan, Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) based in Karachi, said last year’s unprecedented floods there - which displaced 35 million people - hurt urban garment workers substantially.
Increasingly common flooding in cities is among the biggest threats to their ability to go to work and earn a living, he added.
Judd at Cornell’s GLI said industry efforts to tackle climate change have so far mainly focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy use and manufacturing processes, as well as using resources more efficiently.
The Bangladesh garment industry, for example, has 200 factories certified by the US Green Building Council, including 13 out of the world’s 15 top green factories.
Those certified factories are more energy-efficient, but do not necessarily have the right design and technologies to cool temperatures during worsening heatwaves, said the Cornell study.
“The focus on energy or resource efficiency often overlooks how the changing climate impacts the workers, while the costs and risks (of climate hazards) are borne disproportionately by workers and employers,” Judd said in an interview.
How can clothing manufacturers prepare for more heat and floods?
Preventing loss of earnings and jobs menaced by climate change impacts requires more investment in adaptation, better regulatory standards - such as thresholds for tolerable workplace temperatures - and expanded social protection, the studies said.
The researchers found that investment in cooling systems and adaptive design like green roofs and better ventilation have a positive return for manufacturers, which could save 28 per cent of export earnings at risk of loss by 2030 and more than 73,000 jobs in Bangladesh alone.
Governments should also allocate finance from their own budgets or tap global climate funds to support investments in strengthening the industry’s resilience, added Judd.
Meanwhile, countries are making slow progress in providing social protection for workers who could see their livelihoods hit by the emerging threats.
AKM Ashraf Uddin, executive director of the Bangladesh Labour Foundation, a workers’ rights non-profit, told Context Bangladesh’s new universal pension scheme is a key step forward.
In January, a law was approved laying out a pension system - previously only available to public-sector employees - for all people aged 60 and over, who will receive monthly stipends after paying premiums for at least 10 years.
“This universal scheme is a step in the right direction - but what we also need is wage support for workers laid off during crises,” said Uddin.
Judd said the Covid pandemic offered a good example of how to support workers affected by disasters, when the Bangladesh government extended income support for furloughed workers for three months.
Labour activists said protecting workers should also mean enabling their voices to be heard by policy-makers and acknowledging their right to organise.
In Bangladesh - where building and fire safety has seen extensive improvements in the last decade since the fatal Rana Plaza factory collapse - concerns persist about workers’ ability to form independent unions.
In Pakistan - where about 4 million people work in the garment and textiles sector, one of the country’s key foreign exchange earners - workers have little influence.
Nasir Mansoor of the NTUF said the majority do not belong to trade unions and most lack formal employment documents.
In July more than 50 international brands signed up to the International Accord programme to improve workplace health and safety in about 400 factories in Pakistan, facilitate ‘freedom of association’, and increase supply-chain transparency.
“Workers must be able to make their case without fear - otherwise we cannot gauge the proportions of the coming climate crisis,” said Mansoor.
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.
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