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Sustainable Fashion: Why Is Living Wage An Essential Part of It?

by Maggie Kent Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania Oct 7th 20226 mins
Sustainable Fashion: Why Is Living Wage An Essential Part of It?

With every day that passes, fast fashion companies introduce new sustainability initiatives with the overall goal of improving their bottom line. They tout the importance of recycled polyester, supposed “circularity” and clothing recycling programmes while leaving out many less-than-favourable truths about these so-called “fixes”. In reality, there is much more to textile sustainability, and sustainability in general, than recycling and organic cotton. Here’s why sustainable fashion is so important and why the industry should ensure a living wage pay to all its workers.

Why Do We Need Sustainable Fashion?

First off, let’s discuss why this matters in the first place. Why is fast fashion so bad? How does clothing contribute to the climate crisis? 

As the authors of the article Death by waste: Fashion and textile circular economy case” explain, more than two-thirds of the textile goes to landfill at the end of their use and just around 15% is recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that in 2018, we threw away over 9 thousand tons of clothing and footwear, compared to the 4.5 thousand tons that were landfilled in the year 2000. Today, we throw away a garbage truck load of clothing every second. 

You might also like: 10 Stunning Fast Fashion Waste Statistics

Case Study: H&M

H&M, like many other fast fashion brands, has recently added a sustainability section on its website. Under this tab, there is a category called “Let’s be Fair” which addresses labor concerns within the fashion industry. They state that “Together we’re working to improve wage management systems in order to ensure that everybody’s individual skills are taken into account.” However, there isn’t any concrete information about what garment workers are actually being paid at any of their suppliers. According to the H&M group, “China and Bangladesh are the largest production markets for clothing.” The average salary of a textile worker in Shanghai, China, is  71,270 yuen or an equivalent hourly rate of 34 yuen, which translates to 23 cents an hour, or US$492 a year. In contrast, the living wage in Shanghai is 4,707 yuen (US$703) per month.

Notice that when major fast fashion retailers such as H&M talk about labour issues, they conveniently say “fair wages” instead of living wages, seemingly in the hopes that readers will believe these two things are the same. They are not. There is no way to concretely calculate how much a “fair” wage is, but there is a way to calculate a living wage. A living wage is the “remuneration received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family”, including food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs. Essentially, it is how much you need to make in your location to be able to afford the things required for a relatively comfortable life.

H&M also includes a section called “Close the Loop”. Here, the Swedish multinational discusses its garment recycling and collection programme. Once the clothes are collected, they are separated into three different categories, “Rewear, Reuse, or Recycle”. In a video titled “H&M and Zara: Can Fast Fashion be Eco Friendly?”, author Amanda Coulson-Drasner breaks down why this “close the loop” initiative will not solve the underlying problem with fast fashion: we are producing and buying too much. The only way to make fashion more sustainable is simply to produce less of it. A lot less. Let’s take a deeper look. 


Rewear refers to repurposing used clothing items on the secondhand market. However, over half of second hand clothing is shipped overseas while the rest is either turned into industrial material, burned, or landfilled. The Global South essentially serves as a dumping ground for secondhand fast fashion. In 2018, the US alone exported nearly 719 million kilograms (1.58 billion pounds) in secondhand clothing. But what does actually happen to second hand clothes sent overseas? These are typically repurposed or revamped by various up-cyclers. However, because of the poor quality of second hand fast fashion, this is becoming more and more difficult to do, resulting in much of the clothing ending up in landfills across the Global South. 


Reuse refers to clothing that is unsuitable for rewear being turned into other products. However, less than 1% of the material in used clothing is recycled into new clothing. It is unclear how many items of clothing are actually repurposed into other items.


Recycling refers to clothing that is shredded and re-purposed in various ways. Much of our clothing today is made up of different materials put together into one piece. Before a piece can be reused or recycled, these materials have to be separated from one another. This, unfortunately, is not an easy process. If you think about a typical pair of jeans, for example, the cotton yarn with which they are made is generally blended with elastane. But it doesn’t stop here. Jeans usually have other components such as zips and buttons. Moreover, clothing that is shredded cannot be repurposed into new clothing because the fibers are no longer strong enough to serve this purpose effectively. Instead, they may be used to stuff car seats. When you see the label “recycled polyester”, it means that clothing item is more likely made from plastic bottles than actual recycled clothes. 

You might also like: 5 Fast-Fashion Brands Called Out for Greenwashing

Why Is Living Wage Pay Important for Sustainable Fashion?

In the book “The Business of Less”, author Roland Geyer explores how paying garment workers a living wage can actually reduce the negative environmental impacts of fashion and textile production. Geyer explains that labour has no environmental impact and therefore, every dollar we spend on it is a dollar free from negative environmental consequences. Elizabeth Cline writes in her article that “Raising the world’s 35 million garment worker wages just an extra $100 a week (about what’s needed to reach a living wage in Bangladesh and India) would immediately cut 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 out of the global economy.”

What Can Consumers Do?

Anyone can contribute to support the sustainable fashion movement. This part will sound simpler than it actually is. More than anything, we need to slow down and change the way we think about clothing, as well as everything else we consume. First of all, we need to stop buying so much clothing. Maybe take the No New Clothes Pledge over at ReMake and do not purchase any new clothing items for three months. Or maybe even try out a no-buy year. When you do purchase new clothing, spend more money to get a higher-quality item that will last you much longer. Learn to mend your clothing when it rips or how to repurpose it into something new. Purchase natural fibers such as cotton, linen, or wool, so that your clothing will actually be able to biodegrade when it comes time for it to retire. Learn more with books such as Consumed by Aja Barber, Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline, and Stitched Up by Tansy E. Hoskins

Remember that every piece of clothing is sewn by a real person, someone who deserves to get paid enough to support themselves. By slowing down and purchasing fewer, quality pieces, we can send brands a clear message that one collection of recycled polyester is not going to change the world, they actually need to pay their garment workers. 

Featured Image by Max Pixel

You might also like: How to Recognise Fast Fashion Brands and Which Ones to Avoid

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