Meanwhile, criticism of the environmental cost of the fashion industry mounts.
Globally, the fashion industry is worth £2 trillion, which is about the same as the UK’s entire GDP. The industry also employs one out of every six workers in the world (and a much higher proportion of women, who make up three-quarters of its employees). And it is responsible for ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost double air and sea travel, which makes up 6.5 percent.
So if the fashion industry rapidly shrunk, as most environmentalists would like it to, it would have a big effect on the world economy. There’d be benefits - all those greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, which destroys homes and livelihoods - but there would be costs, too, including the loss of some of those billion-odd fashion-industry jobs. Weighing up competing concerns like these is one of the reasons economic policies can be so contentious.
Many of these jobs are low-paid factory work in developing countries. Some people would cheer the demise of this sort of work, on the basis that these factories are notorious for poor working conditions and other abuses. But in the absence of good alternatives, such as better jobs or a decent government safety net, there’s a risk that laying off all these (mostly) women will lead to substantial suffering, from an inability to pay their bills to an increased likelihood of being trapped in an abusive marriage.
Even in the rich world, a substantial proportion of fashion jobs are low-skill and low-pay, meaning the people who hold them are more likely to be particularly vulnerable to an economic shock like losing their job. And the negative financial effects of mass layoffs doesn’t stop there. Businesses whose customers suddenly don’t have as much money to spend may struggle. Governments will end up collecting less tax and spending more on unemployment benefits, which will have a spillover effect on how they structure their budget.
Plenty of people will reasonably conclude that the greater harms of climate change outweigh these losses. But H&M’s boss has a point that rolling back the fashion industry will not be bloodless.