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In connection with the climate crisis, the leading brands of the fashion industry are looking for ways to reduce emissions, use recycled materials or reduce water consumption. But they are neglecting one essential aspect, points out a study by the Global Labor Institute at the American Cornell University and the investment company Schroders.
They are the workers and the conditions in which they will work in the textile factories.
These are mainly workers in Southeast Asian countries, which are affected almost the most by climate change. And it will continue to be. Even the companies themselves can lose billions of dollars as a result.
Southeast Asia, the cradle of textiles
The authors of the study examined how two major consequences of the climate crisis – extremely high temperatures and floods – in four Southeast Asian countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam) will affect the work of workers.
These four textile powerhouses account for 18 percent of global fashion industry exports. There are around 10,000 factories and the sector employs 10.6 million people there.
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What happens to the clothes that we decide to remove from the wardrobe or the sellers from their stores? It will probably end up in a landfill on the other side of the world, where it pollutes the environment and threatens the health of local people.
At the same time, these countries are already facing the fundamental effects of climate change. Last year, a third of Pakistan was under water after unprecedented rains and floods. Cambodia is also struggling with the enormous heat, which the local government has decided to deal with at the national level. According to the authors of the study, the situation will only worsen.
Heat stroke, diarrhea and lost billions
If factory owners and fashion companies do not change and provide suitable working conditions for employees, the industry could lose $65 billion (1.5 trillion crowns) in profits by 2030, which would represent an overall decline of 22 percent, according to the study. Not even 950,000 jobs would be created.
This scenario works with the assumption that extremely high temperatures will cause significant changes in worker productivity. Their performance can drop by 1.5 percent for every one degree Celsius increase in wet temperature.
For context – wet temperature is measured with a thermometer wrapped in cloth soaked in distilled water. If it is higher than 32 degrees, work in these conditions can be considered hazardous to health if the conditions are not adjusted somehow, as stated by the American environmental research center Nicholas Institute.
At the same time, the cited study assumes that the humid temperature in the working environment of workers in Southeast Asia could fluctuate in such high values.
Even the workers themselves feel the rising temperatures, as confirmed to the authors of the study, for example, by the employees of one of the unnamed factories in Bangladesh. They can thus be at risk of heat stroke and, in extreme cases, even death.
Floods can also have a major impact. Smaller floods (up to 0.25 meters) can stop work in factories for hours or days. However, large floods (a meter or more) can slow down or stop production and transport for weeks.
The workers themselves are at risk of not being able to get to work because of the water or of being exposed to health risks (rash, diarrhea, dengue fever) when traveling through flooded areas.
All these factors can then affect lost profit in factories and slow down the supply chain.
A necessary change
According to the researchers, there is therefore a need for the main players in the fashion industry to act. For example, they suggest giving workers enough time for breaks, adjusting working hours or ensuring hydration.
Production centers, often located in the centers of agglomerations, could be moved to regions where the risks associated with climate change are not so significant.
But if the brands decided to move the entire production outside of Southeast and South Asia, they would lose the main advantage that these countries have – built and functioning infrastructure.