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The United Nation Development Program’s (UNDP) guide to a sustainable future.

The 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development is committed to the principles of universality and equality. The sustainable development goals are meant to achieve uniformity for member states, however, the conditions under which United Nations member states find them are vastly irregular and this means each member should be aware of their unique needs in order to suggest appropriate solutions. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the United Nations’ global development network. It advocates for change and connects countries and individuals to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life for themselves. 

The UNDP aims to assist countries in achieving sustainable development by eradicating poverty, accelerating structural transformations and building resilience to shocks and crises. These are the three development settings set to transform the world as we know it through strategic planning.  

Intentionality is committed to achieving sustainable development goal 12 (SDG12), Responsible consumption and production through fashion. Our aim is to use the theories of the three development goals and make these ideas as practical as they can be to include everyone in the developmental processes. South Africa’s inequality is growing widely and we can no longer ignore its effects. Below we discuss how the UNDP’s three development goals which can be used to guide sustainable fashion development in South Africa. 

1. Eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions

In South Africa entrepreneurship has the potential to get people out of poverty and empower them. Alleviating poverty should begin with the poorest, people living below the poverty line, with no resources and no skills. Tackling poverty requires practical solutions that can create jobs and enterprises. 

Despite being a middle income country with abundant resources and growing economic efforts, we still continue to face high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty. These patterns can be attributed to low skills development, the provision of basic educational needs and inadequate leadership. How can we change this pattern?

We can request that the government assist by providing adequate information surrounding sustainable development in schools, corporate spaces and community associations or Non Profit Organisations. Providing knowledge will assist people in identifying what they do not already know and this way they can decide what they need in terms of their education to develop the necessary skills. The different organisations, instrumental in achieving sustainable development goals can provide mentorship programmes, life skills courses and career plotting projects. 

H&M has a garment collecting initiative, they provide recycling boxes in their stores so that customers can donate their old and damaged clothes for a store discount. Through this initiative, 55% of the donated garments in good condition go to micro businesses who resell the items in their communities and generate an income. They also provide toy factories where differently abled bodied individuals repair and up-cycle the garments to make pencil cases and occupational toys to earn an income. This initiative is one example of how the fashion industry can be instrumental in eradicating poverty while endorsing sustainable development efforts. 

2. Accelerate structural transformations

The world has access to only 3% drinkable water and the rate at which we use this already scarce resource is making it more challenging for nature to replenish it. Toxic wastewater is a form of water pollution resulting from garment treatment and dyeing leading substances such as lead, mercury and arsenic into natural water sources. This describes a process directly linked to the production of fashion.

Structural transformation relies on transformation that opens up inclusive economic growth and development. Accelerating transformation requires strategic action that will include everyone because growth without transformation would only reinforce unjust patterns from the past. This means governing structures, governments and production regulation associations, need to create new operation policies to ensure sustainable practice in fashion production.

To achieve structural transformations we would need to adopt a relational approach. This means we have to be more mindful of our relationships with the environment; trees, water sources and other natural resources. Much like H&M, organisations would need to provide incentives for organisations and/or businesses with good environmental relations and defer the ones with bad relations. 

Thanks to greenwashing, however, it has become even more difficult to keep track of who is sticking to regulations and who is not, proving that the fashion industry is more marketing than actual fashion. The reason for this is allowing voluntary certifications throughout the production chain. 

Organisations should be required by law, particularly new ones, to adhere to environmental, social and economic standards. In order to curb implementation failure, the laws should be local so that orders can be easily distributed and observed. This will also allow organisations, due to proximity, to check in on one another and ensure that laws are being followed. Older companies and producers will be eased into the new laws through  demonstrative workshops and policy conferences.  

3. Build resilience to shocks and crises

The Rana Plaza incident is still the greatest tragedy to happen in fast fashion history, killing more than 1100 garment workers and injuring 2500 more. This was the largest factory incident since 1984, proving that production policies had declined tremendously in 2013. Many of the victims of this tragedy were young women, poorly paid and overworked, forcing global brands and retailers to build preventative measures to improve  factory conditions for garment workers. 

The preventative measures proved that brands and retailers had more control over issues of safety, exploitation and natural resource usage. But we understand that most global brands are guided by high profit margins and any interruptions to this model are removed. Thanks to the Sustainable Development goals however, brands can work towards tailoring early warning systems to build resilience. As tragic as the Rana Plaza tragedy was, it was a warning sign to fast fashion production factories. They had to implement sustainable measures against fire and building safety, where at least 2500 factories still benefit from these measures today.

Another lesson to come out of this tragedy was to promote an inclusive culture. Factory workers often complain about being separated from the entire production process. Promoting inclusivity within factory will not only save money but it will build a more diversified workforce because workers will not only understand aspects of their work but the holistic process, factoring in social and environmental factors. 

Factory owners would also need to be more involved within the community in which they work. This can be characterised by building long term resilience into infrastructure. This will require that they engage municipal policies, work with city experts on the adequacy of  amenities and city services. This method will reveal what is sacred and what is not, what needs to be improved and what should be left alone. More importantly it will involve the city not only as observers but instrumental providers of knowledge with experience on their surroundings. This will force factory owners and retail spaces to work according to the preservation rules of their surroundings.

Conclusion 

The knowledge provided above, although provided as a guide to sustainable development, is suggestive and contextual. Each region should formulate their own rules because those will serve them better. The UNDP has provided guidance in terms of what is possible and how it can be achieved but the work relies on the different countries and associations all around the world. 

Eradicating poverty remains a challenge in the developing world because we still sell our labour to the whatever work is available because we need to eat and provide for our family. It is going to take more than international brands giving us damaged garments to up-cycle in order to improve our economic and social development. The fact that we still do not understand how the environment is through heightened production still needs improvement.

Structural transformations, much like eradicating poverty, is an educational and legal process which many of us still lack knowledge in. Transforming policies takes time, resources and engagement from the people involved and in many instances the time element makes it impossible to improve because people lose patience. We need to begin with these processes at schools, where young people and children are required by law to go and learn in South Africa.

Building resilience to shocks and crises requires intense research into history. More people need to understand that in order for a tragedy to occur there is a pattern that exists. Studying historical and current patterns is our only way into a sustainable future, 

At Intentionality we are committed to reporting on the irregular practises of fashion contributing to social and environmental ruin. Most importantly though, we are committed to suggesting and practising sustainable development ideas for a better future. 

Tsholofelo Masela

Tsholofelo Masela

Intentionality is a platform created towards engaging independent and intentional fashion consumers to positively impact social and environmental sustainability.

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