With the closure of Forever 21, we need to do more to rein in fast fashion

5 October 2019

By Jennifer Wells, Star Business Columnist

Column published in the Toronto Star

On the topic of engaging the young voter of today and the soon-to-be voter of tomorrow, those dirt-cheap ribbed flare pants at the going-out-of-business Forever 21 could make a deeply informative case study.

Where were they made? Well, that’s an easy question to answer. Simply look at the label. But then add: what colour are they? And then consider the process of dying that cropped top, that T-shirt, that milkmaid dress. And then get your children or your nephews and their friends to watch the film River Blue so they can learn all about “hydrocide” and toxins flushed into waterways and the environmental cost of fast fashion beyond tossing those puce pants on the waste pile.

It’s all of a piece: the labour behind the label (fair wages? washroom breaks? safe working conditions? indentured children?), the impact of microfibres being shed into lakes and rivers, the minuscule amount of material from clothing that is effectively recycled. Here’s one of those wake-up statements from the UN: “The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for eight to 10 per cent of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”

Consider this a short list of talking points in preparation for Monday when Sheri Meyerhoffer, Canada’s Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, gives her opening remarks at the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable Conference in Toronto.

Conference attendees will be eager for insights into sustainable development in the fashion industry. Who’s doing what? Which companies are world leaders? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation will present its insights on how to transform the linear fashion industry into a circular one. Chris Homer from thredUP will speak to his company’s breakthrough success in using AI to transform second-hand clothing into a blisteringly hot business. In August, the San Francisco-based company signed a deal with Macy’s and J.C. Penney, the old-time retailers waking up to the zooming demand for second-hand clothing from GenZers. ThredUP offers brands for every price point: Frye boots are in high demand.

So I’m seeing silos of progress here and there.

What I’m not seeing are the vigorous advances promised by the federal government when it announced that it would be remaking the office of the never effective social responsibility counsellor, whose job, ostensibly, was to ensure that Canada’s extractive sector — mining; oil and gas — was upholding human rights abroad. In eliminating the supine Stephen Harper-era office, the Trudeau government said it would do better, and at last made a move in January, 2018, announcing a new ombud office that would “set a global benchmark for corporate social responsibility.” The mandate was expanded beyond the resource sector to include garment manufacture, on its surface a smart move politically as it acknowledged the tragedy of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh.

It took 15 months for the government to take the next step, announcing in April that Sheri Meyerhoffer would be taking up the post. In making the announcement Jim Carr, minister of international trade diversification, stated that Meyerhoffer would have “the mandate to jointly and independently review allegations of human rights abuses arising from Canadian company operations abroad in the mining, oil and gas, and garment sectors. We expect the scope of these reviews to expand, within a year of the ombudsperson taking office, to other business sectors.”

Significantly, Carr noted in his remarks that Meyerhoffer would be “empowered” to report independently, and would have the “legislative and policy tools required to guarantee compliance,” including “the compelling of witnesses and documents.”

And spring passed to summer and summer to fall. In early September, a new order in council did make an important amendment to the mandate of the office. The ombud would not investigate any company’s complaints that it was being unfairly targeted as a human rights abuser. I see that as a positive move to keep the ombud’s focus on misbehaving companies.

And then the writ was dropped. And here we are.

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability red flags the definition of which companies the office can review: only those entities controlled by a Canadian-incorporated company. That’s insane. Investigators sifting through the ashes of Rana Plaza immediately surfaced the ways in which garment manufacture was subcontracted, and sub-sub contracted — the cheap-labour system upon which fast fashion has relied.

And what about those promised independent investigative powers? Absent. Meyerhoffer appears to be little more than a public servant who will “review” and “make recommendations.” I would love to be proved wrong about that.