Pakistan is underwater, and fashion’s relief efforts are only but trickling in as the losses are surveyed.
But Pakistan remains at a standstill in assessing the losses and damages that have taken lives and livelihoods.
Since record rainfall hit Pakistan in mid-June, at least 1,100 people have died amid the flooding, partly induced by glacial melting and unprecedented rainfall amid the usual monsoon season. With the latest climate-induced disaster, the United Nations said damages have affected at least 33 million people (or one-third of the country), destroying a million homes and leaving many stranded in its wake. In a video message shared Aug. 30, the United Nations secretary general António Guterres called for $160 million in aid to appease the “monsoon on steroids” that Pakistan is faced with.
And fashion can’t just turn a blind eye.
“The monsoon in Pakistan is not an isolated case — it is for everyone to consider,” Ebru Debbag, executive director of global sales and marketing at Soorty, told WWD. “I feel frustrated that the transformation in our industry is taking far too long and that we are not yet seeing true cause and effect of global actions. I feel a deep urge to alert all global citizens that we are all in this together and need to act together. It is not enough to be solely upset about what has happened — although it is devastating — but we need to act…All of us and right now.”
Though Debbag said it is too early to assess the true impact of the monsoon on the cotton and the textile sector, he said there will surely be multiple consequences. “What happens in the cotton fields in Pakistan will emerge in fashion stores in Europe or the U.S.” Debbag said the global fashion industry needs to treat Pakistan — one of the top five cotton-growing countries in the world — as an inherent expansion of its existence and “cocreate longer-term alliances.”
Calculating Cotton Losses
In Pakistan, the majority of cotton (a main economic driver) is grown in two regions: Punjab and Sindh. According to the Cotton Crop Assessment Committee, local crop output during the 2021 to 2022 crop season was forecast at 9.37 million bales (with 5.44 million bales for Punjab, which is the main growing region, and 3.5 million bales for Sindh).
The country’s minister for planning, Ahsan Iqbal, estimated at least 45 percent of cotton crops were destroyed, but cotton growers and ginners are still surveying the damage and fear inaccuracies, which lead to price speculation.
“What happens is most of the damage is along the belt where some of the crops are, some can be salvaged, that is to the extent of the cotton crop,” Munir Mashooqullah, founder of M5 Groupe, one of the largest global apparel suppliers, which includes Synergies Worldwide, told WWD. He warned against incorrect figures and said on-the-ground assessments as of Thursday showed less devastation in the southern region of Punjab compared to Sindh (as satellite images also confirm). Comparable past floods in Pakistan’s Sindh region have chalked up anywhere from 2 million to 2.2 million cotton bales destroyed (or roughly 24 percent less than the current estimated output), per 2011 figures from the Cotton Brokers Association, though this latest monsoon-worsened situation is unprecedented.
Pakistan bolsters programs like the Better Cotton Initiative. Better Cotton counts hundreds of thousands of licensed farmers in Pakistan, which is the program’s second-largest sourcing partner. Though the cotton organization reported initial losses to the media, the organization retracted earlier inaccurate estimates and told WWD it is still “in the process of gathering feedback from our field staff about the impact” and will share information with stakeholders in the coming weeks. Better Cotton offered words of solidarity to those impacted in the flooding and said it is providing on-the-ground humanitarian support through its Programme Partners.
Reconfiguring Relief for Garment, Textile Workforce
Relief can’t come soon enough, and fashion workers’ rights groups are organizing.
Organizations like the Labor Education Foundation, together with industry watchdog Remake, are raising funds to provide immediate relief to those affected, but garment workers are already facing compounding inequities.
“At the moment, this is a relief phase where we are trying to rescue people and [address] their needs for food and shelter,” said Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labor Education Foundation. In many cases, people have left flooded areas and are housed in tents. Mahmood stressed their immediate need for medical care to treat developing skin allergies and ward off mosquitoes. Because of the situation, he said, “Yarn will become more expensive. The garment factories will face more difficulty. The effect of that will be directly imposed on workers. Job safety is not [secured] here, although the labor laws talk about ‘secure jobs’ for workers. The workers are going to lose jobs if the employers are facing these kinds of problems, having to import cotton and not having enough orders.”
Though immediate relief efforts are the priority, Mahmood stressed the need for long-term planning amid an estimated 40 percent price hike due to inflation in Pakistan, including alternative livelihoods for agricultural workers and living wages as a backbone of equitable work. He underscored that living wages are a responsibility for fashion brands contracting in Pakistan, of which there are many.
Nasir Mansoor, general secretary at the National Trade Union in Pakistan (one of the country’s most visible unions wherein very few garment workers are unionized), described how inflation matters across trade. “We have a food crisis, a textile crisis and a cotton crisis. We have to open our borders. We are not only saying that for cotton and our rice, but for daily use items. There is a more than 50 percent price increase in daily use items — potato, chicken. People can’t buy that.”
Mansoor pointed it back to fashion’s global responsibility, highlighting the growing dissastisfaction among young workers. “Brands are not sympathetic to the workers, they are only thinking about the quality of the merchandise and the timing. They don’t care about what is happening to the workplace. The anger of the workers is growing and growing. In Pakistan, 80 percent of workers are less than 35 years old.”
Amid the ongoing fight for worker justice, Mansoor left a few words of hope. “We are very much optimistic, but we have to tell our friends and comrades the material conditions that exist.”