Cradle: Edition 11

What is just transition not? A response to the latest greenwashing fad in the fashion industry

In Edition 7 of Cradle, we explored the issue of degrowth, so it’s now time to explore – how do we get there in a way which has justice for people and planet at its core? I am excited to have Dr. Hakan Karaosman and Prof. Donna Marshall guide us through the reasons we need Just Transition and, most importantly, what Just Transition really is and what (instead) they want us to believe it is…

When I first met professor Hakan Karaosman (who also features in our Fashionscapes episode A Living Wage) we spoke a lot about how the culture of fashion is characterised by lack of transparency, power imbalance and lack of inclusion, and these very characteristics impede our transition to a just and circular fashion industry. “We need participatory and inclusive social dialogue with suppliers, workers and unions, particularly in developing countries, to develop mechanisms to tackle fashion’s insurmountable environmental and social problems rather than ‘solutions’ such as social offsetting” (where a brand would, for example, give a philanthropic donation to a project in the Global South). 

At Eco-Age we have long been advocating that unless we put the workers in the centre, no holistic climate solution can be built to foster change, or even begin to challenge the underlying conditions.  

 “Fashion brands hold all the power in the fashion industry” as Hakan reminds us, “but they are geographically and emotionally detached from their supply networks and the workers in them. With Donna (Marshall), we have conducted various multi-tier supply chain studies and our results suggest that when fashion brands get involved in sustainability initiatives, either to help the environment or workers in supply chains, they dominate the conversations and set the agenda. Supplier and workers are excluded and systemic problems caused by the brands’ business models are never discussed. 

This is why we need a Just Transition; not window dressing, false initiatives or façades to keep us distracted. I hope you find this new edition of Cradle inspiring and informative, and if you have any questions, remember we are always here to answer them. 

With all my best,

Livia Firth

‘Humanity is on a highway to climate hell’ were the words of António Guterres at the recent COP27. Commentators agree we are hurtling towards climate catastrophe because of dramatically increasing global greenhouse-gas emissions. Compounding the rise in global emissions is unjust decision making, as fossil-fuel lobbyists weave false narratives and suppress the voices of the communities impacted by the fossil-fuel industry’s disastrous practices. We hear talk of ensuring social justice at the heart of climate action but there is so much that needs to be done and so many critical and time-sensitive issues that must be addressed to make this a reality. Fast and scalable resolutions are needed to tackle climate chaos. These are well known and within reach, but most industrial sectors and companies are still pursuing the linear ‘take-make-waste’ growth logic and taking short-term and incremental action. When companies frame inadequate actions as climate solutions, this has a negative effect: companies not doing enough get positive publicity and encourage others to follow suit, and at the same time they protect the status quo, which we know needs to be radically changed.

Fashion is a massive contributor to climate chaos as it is responsible for roughly 10% of all global emissions. Fashion needs to reduce its environmental impact, but research shows that climate action needs to happen at the supply chain level in fair, inclusive and just ways. To put this in a context, supply chain emissions result in 92% of a company’s total climate impact. Therefore, fashion desperately needs to decarbonise its supply chains. The world’s biggest fashion brands have set net-zero targets, yet they are off track to meet the 1.5oC climate target; major brands are directly linked with deforestation; fashion operations are heavily dependent on fossil fuels and fashion business model fails to align supply chain practices with the inclusive climate action needed to maintain the 1.5oC emissions pathway.

The fashion industry has started to use the term just fashion transition’ and there are claims that steps are being taken by fashion companies to transition to a low-carbon system. However, our scientific research on just transition in and across fashion supply chains does not see this happening; we see that just transition risks are being hijacked by influential industry players to pursue business interests at the expense of any meaningful change.

What is Just Transition?

The idea of a just transition emerged in the 1960s and 70s in the USA when coalmining operations changed from local and independent producers to large-scale enterprises following a series of mergers and acquisitions. Numerous small, unprofitable mines closed, and trade unions demanded rights for workers and communities to prevent mass unemployment and decline.

Two decades later the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) included the term ‘just transition’ in a statement at the 1997 Kyoto Conference and in 2010 during the ITUC World Congress a resolution on ‘combating climate change through sustainable development and just transition’ was adopted by unions (ITUC, 2010). The concept then became wider than the energy industries and is now used to describe transitions required in other fields such as agriculture, food, transport, and housing.

Just transition gained universal recognition by international bodies, governments, trade unions, non- governmental organizations, and activists in 2015, after its mention in the Paris Agreement stating, ‘the imperatives of a just transition’. The concept continues to grow in scope and there are efforts at local, national, and international levels to create transformative and alternative models to ensure climate action happens with social justice.

We define just transition as the transition towards a climate- and people-positive future. Just transition actions focus on the dramatic reduction of GHG emission and in parallel ensure decent working conditions and wages for workers across supply chains; with decisions, implementation and measures of success achieved in a fair, inclusive, and equitable way.

Despite its growing popularity and, what appears to be, an abundance of just transition claims and related policies, there are also inconsistencies in its focus and the level of change that needs to be implemented. Little is known about how a just transition can be achieved and, importantly, how people, communities and a wide range of stakeholders can be integrated into these transitions. In our forthcoming research, we identify the paradoxical tensions between short-term climate goals and long-term societal consequences and provide a vision for just transition that can be used across supply chains.

What is Just Transition not?

It is as important to understand what just transition is not. The idea of the just transition has been appropriated by various stakeholders and issues: Industrial lobbies and their economic concerns; campaigns promoting specific commercial agendas rather than holistic and inclusive climate action; power clashes and fragmentation between different actors, e.g. with one actor dominating while another’s perspective is neglected; and political instability. We have seen just transition used as a strategic manoeuvre based on self-interest exacerbating existing societal problems.

Our research has concluded that when direct control of just transition is delegated to the private sector, just transition is characterised by power imbalance, conflict and even violence. We see time and time again that green capitalist transitions focusing on incremental and technological solutions with top-down approaches, which policy makers and brands often favour, fail to address structural and systemic problems faced by the people working across multiple tiers in supply chains.

As an example, the most influential industrial body in the fashion industry, Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), has called for collective industry action and radical transformation, stating ‘Finding this common ground is essential because, without it, we can’t move forward. It’s industry versus activists, natural vs synthetic, growth vs degrowth, global north vs global south’. Similarly, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, in collaboration with The European House Ambrosetti, proposes six proposals for a global just fashion transition. While welcoming these industrial conversations, we need to interrogate the basic foundations of their proposals.

Collective action is fundamental to just transition and inclusive decision making must be ensured. Justice has three fundamental components that need to be understood: Interactional justice, which means respectful and empathetic relationships as well as transparent communication between the parties; Procedural justice, which involves inclusive, participatory decision making where the representation of vulnerable communities is ensured (in the fashion industry this should include tier-n suppliers, managers, line-managers, workers, farmers); Distributive justice where risks and benefits are shared fairly and power is redistributed between brands and suppliers at all tiers.

Fashion needs just transition. We need to transform the way decisions are made, and how performance is measured. Throughout our research it was clear that manufacturers, workers and lower-tier communities have tacit knowledge and valuable experiences that can be very useful for decarbonisation, resource utilisation and waste management. Supply chain actors have great and scalable ideas on what, how, and by whom radical climate action must happen. However, just transition must start with inclusive social dialogues where every stakeholder group gets to speak and participate. Currently, there is not enough representation in decision-making in the fashion industry.

The climate crisis is a consequence of our broken value system based on moral and economic injustice. In a context where the G20 economies emit 78 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, we need to acknowledge that smaller players, particularly in truly developing countries, including suppliers at all tiers, workers, farmers and local communities have contributed least to fashion’s climate crisis but they are now forced to adhere to climate goals and targets set and imposed by the brands without inclusive social dialogues.

The way the concept of sustainability is conceptualised by fashion brands and industrial interest groups must be challenged. Fashion brands dominate these conversations, but their underlying business models are never questioned, changed or rejected. Fashion brands, regardless of the segment they operate in, are in a constant state of overproduction. They deliver dozens of collections a year using petroleum-based synthetics while weaving so-called ‘conscious’ materials, making many clothes unrecyclable.

Our research shows their purchasing practices are driven by profit maximisation, cost-reduction tactics, and arms-length risk mitigation strategies.

This unsustainable business model has resulted in globally dispersed, fragmented and very complex supply networks with unnecessarily opaque practices across which we, time and again, see horrendous social and environmental scandals. Suppliers, and their workers, are the not the problem: Fashion brands’ procurement strategies are perpetuating economic, social and environmental problems. If we want to get serious about just transition, we must have an open conversation about these systemic issues.

Scientific tools and knowledge explain how to deal with supply chain issues such as power imbalance, trust deficit, tensions, and the paradoxical issues that characterise climate action; therefore, we invite any brand, industry group or organisation to join this conversation and help to craft inclusive conversations within the fashion industry and to develop and implement inclusive and radical supply chains actions for just transition. We need to empower everyone working across these vast networks, not just the power holders. If not, using ‘just transition’ will become a smokescreen that promotes excess, and does nothing more useful than signalling to consumers the industry’s corporate hypocrisy, social offsetting and greenwashing.


Dr. Hakan Karaosman is Assistant Professor at Cardiff University. Prof. Donna Marshall is Professor of Supply Chain Management at University College Dublin. Hakan and Donna lead the research centre FReSCH (Fashion’s Responsible Supply Chain Hub), which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 895711. FReSCH takes a supply chain and anthropological approach by exploring multiple fashion supply chains to understand tensions and paradoxical issues between operational goals, environmental transition and social justice and develops models to ensure just transition in complex supply chain settings. FReSCH will disseminate knowledge reports and orchestrate several engagement workshops throughout 2023, please get in touch for more details.

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