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Professor describes fast fashion industry, her case study in panel discussion

| Friday, April 14, 2023

On Thursday, the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights hosted a panel titled “Labor, Exploitation and the Environment: Fast Fashion and Global Supply Chains,” featuring Professor Justine Nolan from the University of New South Wales Sydney. Nolan is also the director of the Australian Human Rights Institute.

Nolan’s research focuses on the intersection of business and human rights, particularly the supply chain responsibility for human rights and modern slavery.

Panelists included second-year Notre Dame Law School student Alyssa DeSouza, Notre Dame sophomore Raleigh Kuipers and Notre Dame junior Briana Chappell. The panel hosted guests in-person in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall, as well as on Zoom, allowing Professor Nolan to present from Australia.

Nolan began her presentation by sharing several shocking facts about the fast fashion industry. The world uses an estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing every year, which is a 400% increase from two decades ago, she said.

Nolan also noted the fast fashion industry is the third-largest industry that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The biggest concern within the fast fashion industry is that there are severe labor abuses within fashion supply chains, she said. The clothes are often produced cheaply, leading to poor working conditions for garment workers. Nolan said this includes lack of living wage, forced overtime, forced labor, child labor, sexual harassment, health and safety concerns and a lack of union access.

Nolan presented a question on regulating supply chains, asking the audience if there is a difference between responsibility and legal accountability. The answer, she said is yes.

Nolan then presented a case study that she did on the Veja sneaker company. The materials come from Brazil, and the shoes are assembled there as well, so Nolan went down to the Amazon rainforest to investigate. She discovers that Veja makes a deliberate effort to pay workers in advance to ensure that they have a steady income.

When asked about what people can do about having fast fashion in their wardrobes, Nolan said that “we all have fast fashion in our wardrobes, so what we can do is try to wear it out.”

She said our consumption of clothing ultimately impacts how workers are paid and fuels wages.

“Instead of buying 10 new things, you might buy two things that are going to last longer,” she said.

Nolan said we all likely have at least a few things in our wardrobe that were made with some exploitation, so it’s a matter of trying to keep wearing them.

To close her presentation, Nolan noted that while there is a lot of bad news surrounding the labor and environmental effects with the fast fashion industry, some companies are trying to do things differently. 

“There’s a lot of interest from consumers and people like [the panelists] that are making a difference and pressuring companies to create change,” she said. 

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