Achieving SDG 5: Empowering Women for a Sustainable Future in the Textiles Industry

By Chau Nguyen

Chau represented Swinburne University of Technology at the ECOSOC High-level Political Forum in New York.


Women are integral to the economic, social and environmental progress of developing countries and the future of the world. However many face huge disadvantages due to gender inequality and social marginalisation. Nowhere are these problems more readily apparent than in the textiles industry.

Women in textiles manufacturing are excluded from many opportunities which could potentially improve their well-being and livelihoods. Gender equality is a United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and in this paper I will discuss why empowering these women will not only benefit their livelihoods but also promote a more sustainable and environmentally friendly fashion industry.

Policy recommendations

1.    Acknowledge the gender inequality being faced by employed women in the textiles industry to work towards achieving the targets set out for SDG 5 by the United Nations as part of the 2030 Agenda.

2.    Recognise the vital role of women as individuals who contribute to the three pillars of sustainable development in economic, environmental and social progress in the textiles industry and future, specifically through SDG 5.4 and 5.5.

3.    Enlist government lobbying with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide financial resources and programs to empower and influence women to become aware of their rights as gender equals in the textiles industry.

4.    In the case of Australia, reaffirm the commitment made to provide resources for the involvement of efficient and ethical responsibility.

4.1  For businesses, it should become a policy to exercise responsibility of overseas suppliers of standard labour laws through implementation of SA8000, a Social Accountability International certification for fair and safe workplaces across all industries.

4.2  For consumers, to educate and raise the awareness of the current conditions of labours in the textiles industry in developing countries and emphasising of the conditions of women to influence the business management of ethical production through supply demands.


Considered to be one of the oldest and most universally recognised industries run by women for women (Cunningham 2016), the textiles and clothing industry is the second biggest and most polluting industries in the world following oil (Sweeny 2015). It contributes significantly to the economic income, foreign exchange, social opportunity and development of a country’s status for a number of countries (Keane and Willem te Velde 2008).

This prominent industry, in the context of this paper is defined as:

‘an industry which covers a great number of activities from the transformation of raw materials into fibres, yarns and fabrics that in turn enter into the production of […] clothing […] that makes up the articles of apparel and accessories, distinguished by underling manufacturing processes’ (EU Trade Policy 2011).

This industry plays a major role in global employment, market growth, and international trade, with statistics from the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) showing that roughly 26.5 million people work in the textiles industry (ILO 2006). Women contribute up to 70% of those employed in intensive and low-skilled positions with below average wages and unprotected contracts (Hernández 2006), while men make up the remaining 30%, usually taking up managerial roles that hold better economic and social benefits (Kabeer and Labour 2004).

Due to this marginalisation, women in developing countries, which is defined as countries where ‘majority of the population live below the minimum income with weak social indicators’ (The Library of Congress 2008), face various challenges everyday that hinder their opportunities in the working environment. This brings to attention the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), defined in the United Nation’s ‘Transforming our world’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) with a focus on SDG 5. SDG 5’s overall goal is to narrow the gap of gender inequality and strive for a universal prosperity and peace where no one gets left behind (United Nations General Assembly 2015). 

This paper aims to highlight the labour inequality of employed women with a focus on the industry and the crucial ways in which women are essential to the sustainable development of economic, social and political needs of the world for the present and beyond (Drexhage and Murphy 2010). It will conclude by taking a look at Australia’s role in sustainably developing and achieving SDG 5 in the industry locally.

Section 1: Women Working

Women make up half the universal population and are considered a vital addition to the economic and social development of their community. However due to deep-rooted culture and social norms in developing countries (Jayachandran 2014), women become marginalised to their rights, opportunities and potential abilities as women in the 21st century.

According to Duflo (2012), women only constitute for 52% of labour force participation, where as men constitute to 78%, having a significant difference in women’s employment opportunities with gender disparity. Specifically in developing countries, employed women are characterised by vulnerable and low-paid employment (ILO 2012) with long hours and undervalued positions in comparison to their male counterparts. With lack of egalitarian roles and rights, women cannot show their full economic potential due to the lack of absence of basic rights and acknowledgement (Uteng 2011).

While both men and women are affected from poor working conditions in areas such as factory work, women suffer far greater health and safety hazards due to the discrepancy in low-skilled jobs opportunities. Working capacities are frequently overcrowded with an inadequate supply of fresh air and lighting (Paul-Majumder and Begum 2000). Direct contact to toxic and raw materials also contribute to the difficulty of productivity level and causes various health complications such as headaches and back pain (Ahamed, 2013). In addition to poor working conditions, the World’s Women Report, conducted by the United Nation, identifies that women labour longer hours than men in both work and additional domestic responsibilities, yet are earn 20% less in wages (United Nation 2015).

Section 2: SDG 5 and Women in Sustainable Development

Numerous hardships that women face particularly in the textiles industry, such as exploitation of cheap labour and poor working conditions, then emphasise priority for SDG 5, one of the 17 SDGs to be achieved by 2030 under Agenda 2030. SDG 5 builds on Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3 to promote gender equality and empower women (United Nations 2000), with an umbrella of targets to work towards achieving it. There are nine targets under SDG 5, which serve as steps to effectuating the goal with the following targets highlighting those relevant to empowering women in the textiles industry:

  • Ending all forms of discrimination against women
  • Recognising and valuing unpaid care and domestic work
  • Ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making
  • Giving women equal rights to economic resources

Universally, women play an important role within the three pillars of sustainable development, which defined by the United Nations, are guiding principles in the economic, environmental and social development for the needs of the present and future generations (World Commissions on Environment and Development 1987) that could improve a livelihood of a community (Stevens 2010). However because of the disproportionate gender disparity in the working sector where opportunities are limited to women, they make up majority of the population living in poverty (Global Poverty Project 2012). This contributes to the difficulty of their day-to-day life and often deprives them access to basic necessities for their wellbeing, leading to malnutrition and potentially death (World Bank 2012).

Studies have indicated that women, as the sole individuals responsible for looking after their families and often oversee the sustainable management of resources for food, shelter and general needs (OECD 2008). Thus women are inclined to reinvest up to 90% of their income into their households (World Bank 2009) if they are employed to improve the wellbeing of their family. Through SDG 5’s goal of narrowing gender inequality, empowered women then become a crucial component for decision-making towards the achievement of all SDGs that include reducing poverty, promoting sustainable philosophy and enriching a community – all of which positively impact on the textiles industry and their country’s social, economic and agricultural status.

Their roles in achieving sustainable development for the textiles industry can only exist and be further progressed if inequities and prejudices that exist against them are narrowed, as they hinder the progress needed for sustainability (Commission on Sustainable Development 1997).

SDG 5 emphasises the importance of gender equality for a country’s economic growth (The World Bank 2002), ergo by moving from patriarchal norms to recognise the importance of women’s involvement in decision-making, it will benefit the sustainable development of the future of textiles and the livelihoods of the women involved. There must be dedicated action implemented to achieving SDG 5 by following the principles of the 2030 Agenda, with government lobbying in partnership with NGOs, who are seen as critical elements shaping the global policy (UN Women n.d) to equip women with merited resources and financial assistance for entrepreneurships to hold egalitarian voices and roles in the increase of globalisation (Aguilar 2002). This will provide women with a more sustainable future with equal economic and social opportunities that will benefit them, the textiles industry and be closer to the overall achievement of the 2030 Agenda (UN Women 2013).

Section 3: Australia’s consumer role in the textiles industry

As a nation that signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women (CEDAW), Australia has a commitment to ensuring consistent and comprehensive implementation and promotion of human rights and towards the social, economic and political enhancement of women in all areas of human development (DFAT 2016), which include the textiles industry.

Nine out of 10 Australian textiles and clothing businesses, however, contract suppliers in developing countries and fail to meet the minimum required labour standards by breaching labour regulations of workers’ rights. Due to the pressure from consumer demands, businesses are influenced to lower management standards (Farole and Akinci 2011) and fall into the trap of unethical production procedures to meet supply demands, while forgoing labour rights and responsibilities for the suppliers and their workers. This exploits the rights of workers, specifically in textiles production (Adhikari and Yamamoto 2008) women who make up 81% of those most affected in the manufacturing and production sectors (Eurostat 2015).

In order to shift the mindset of Australian businesses, a code of conduct developed by the Social Accountability International (SAI) SA8000 Standard should be implemented as a pre-requisite in the industry. SA8000, which is a central document, is established from the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, and audits for social certification standards for fair and safe workplaces across all industrial sectors (SAI 2014). These codes are statements that enforce a business’ responsibility in the vicinity of ethical practices for human and labour rights, additionally environmental standards in all occupational operations and the operation of suppliers – which would establish the goal towards focusing on advocating the rights for women and providing them with better economic and social opportunities in the textiles industry.

Educating Australian consumers on the exploitative working conditions of employed women in developing countries by raising awareness and influencing the ideas of ethical purchasing and consumer responsibility will also aid the change in workers’ rights and aid the development of women’s rights and livelihoods as part of a moral and progressive country, meeting the requirements of SDG 5.


To ensure the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda, comprehensively addressing SDG 5 regarding women’s rights will raise awareness on the vital role that women play in achieving sustainable development in various economic, social and environmental areas in the textiles industry.

As women are the future of a sustainably developed world that is neither a choice nor an industry commodity; they are leaders and voices that can endorse innovation and creativity for the industry (James 1995). In all economic, social and environmental areas, women need to be empowered and nurtured to fully recognise egalitarian roles to benefit not only their livelihoods but also future of the textiles.


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