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The built environment and fashion industries are poised to lead the recovery. That is why

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  • The built environment and fashion industries represent massive amounts of energy consumption and employ millions of people.
  • By focusing on decarbonization and promoting the protection of labor rights, these industries can create economic opportunities that foster a more humane and environmental way of doing business.
  • As these industries begin to realize the value of transforming practices, momentum will increase for other sectors to follow suit.

Faced with growing calls to action to tackle growing inequalities and the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of the main drivers of industrial and economic reform: workers, communities and the environment.

The crisis has exposed the dangers of using pure market-based approaches. This should come as no surprise to those who have long opposed the free market, shareholder-centered approach derived from current neoliberal economics.

The tide is turning, however, and business leaders are starting to understand that their legitimacy can depend on how they react. Those who seize this moment will surely benefit from the momentum towards a more humane and environmentally focused approach to business.

Take, for example, the calls to rebuild better from the We Mean Business Coalition, a group of over 1,000 companies with a market capitalization of over $ 24 trillion that are organizing to support climate action and fair economic approaches.

By setting commitments for companies and strengthening the collective power to put pressure on governments and decision-makers, this group joins the chorus of human rights, labor and environmental movements that are sounding the alarm for change for some time. Together, the approach has enormous potential to change the debate and lead to meaningful action by policymakers to commit to tackling the threats posed by the climate crisis.

These two industries, the built environment and fashion, are sectors ripe for transformation and where even subtle changes have the potential for large-scale transformation. Here’s why:

The built environment

The built environment, the physical places and structures we inhabit, is a huge potential change agent in this regard. Buildings and construction account for massive amounts of energy consumption and around 40% of global CO2 emissions, providing a clear path for changing current consumption and production pathways.

The construction sector represents approximately 13% of global GDP and for 7.2% of the global workforce. Many of the jobs related to this sector have a negative history of labor rights, particularly with regard to migrant workers. As the experts noted, the scale of the industry and its relative impacts on labor markets and the environment make it a leading agent of transformation of the wider global economy.

By favoring approaches that focus on decarbonization and the promotion of the protection of labor rights, we can create economic opportunities that promote healthy and regenerative structures. Efforts are starting to germinate in this regard, with increased attention be placed for massaging wood and other wood products in construction, as well as the use of natural materials in buildings.

At the same time, the main human rights organizations are looking more closely at promoting rights-based approaches.

Fashion

But it is not the only sector with transformative power. The fashion sector produces nearly 10% of global carbon emissions and is the second largest consumer of water, while employing between 60 and 70 million garment supply chain workers.

While there have been laudable innovations in recent years towards adopting circularity and increasing the use of organics, there is still enormous potential to promote transformative change in worker protections.

Workers in the sector often find themselves without social protection, which exposes them to vulnerability. Recognizing this need, the International Labor Organization, economic actors and those responsible for labor rights committed to take action to protect the incomes, health and jobs of garment workers, and to work together to establish sustainable social protection systems for a more just and resilient garment industry.

This call to action was launched in April 2020 and must now be implemented regularly. The effort should seek to pitch a large tent, involving other industry players and also leveraging development actors.

What is clear from the above examples is that critical and much needed efforts are starting to emerge and these efforts need to be encouraged and accelerated. As social movements, consumers, investors, regulators and businesses themselves begin to realize the value of transforming practices, momentum will increase for other sectors to follow suit. This domino effect will spur the economic transformation that is so desperately needed to ensure that the environment and the people who inhabit it can live in a healthy and just society.

There is no doubt that the transformation of our economic system is imperative. Now is the time for the companies and the industries they are a part of to take hold of it.

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