Responsibility in the Fashion World Post Rana Plaza

2697297072_2189c83eda_zBy Elizabeth Dove and Liza Horowitz

The tremors of a crumbling building that killed 1,129 garment makers and maimed hundreds more in Bangladesh last year have been felt throughout the world. Every industry that relies on a supply chain with factories far from HQ is thinking about how to avoid such an impact on lives and reputation. This is true for no industry more so than the fashion world, which was stained in the tragedy and is under the spotlight in unflattering ways.

Members of the fashion industry from around the globe came together Nov. 3-4 in Toronto to reflect on what has changed, examine best practices and create visions of the future during the inaugural World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (#WEAR2014) put on by the dynamic Fashion Takes Action.

For each advancement post-Rana Plaza, opportunities for going further were identified.

Public, media pushing buyers and retailers to push suppliers – but what’s the reward?

No longer will the public allow companies the luxury of ‘ignorance is bliss.’ And the assumptions of ‘we can’t,’ ‘we shouldn’t,’ ‘it’s too cost prohibitive’ have been challenged. Buyers and retailers in turn are putting pressure on suppliers. And while we haven’t yet seen measurable evidence that customers will significantly reward companies for making the right decisions, we have seen evidence they will shy away for the wrong ones.

At the moment, the pressure is on first-tier suppliers. Without more proof of benefit, will buyers and retailers push second- or third-tier suppliers (e.g. embroiderers) to improve working conditions? Ian Spaulding of Elevate says that factories also need assistance in recognizing that they profit from better working conditions beyond securing buyer relationships: longer retention, more skilled workers, better performances. By prioritizing and investing in management, they can turn responsibility into an asset.

Buyers and retailers feel the weight of responsibility, but do they recognize their role?

A number of presenters pointed to the short lead times currently demanded by fast fashion as a root cause of overtime. Promises of $9 jeans to consumers create a near impossible profit margin, with the only room for cost savings being in worker pay and working conditions.

Industry standards are more collaborative but still too many

According to Sedex Global, a not-for-profit driving greater improvements in supply chain practices, the top standards issues are:

  • Fire safety
  • Health and safety management
  • Level of overtime hours worked
  • Management systems
  • Environment

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is a five-year undertaking that began in 2013 to provide apparel companies the opportunity to work together on standards solutions. While this is an impressive local undertaking, there are few global standards. Adam Whinston of SGS said the paperwork for factories on compliance is enormous. Factory management often get similar questions from different buyers questioning social compliance, with slightly different wording or in a different order.

Smarter audits, not more audits, needed

Buyers and retailers are putting more focus on data-driven solutions, but they have to scrutinize which data is valuable: Factory self assessment tools are useless, and employee focus-groups don’t get as much data as surveys workers complete on the phone in their local language.

Also, health and safety auditors themselves are limited and may miss important factors like structural deficiencies. Plus, several speakers confirmed that when the auditors are in town, factory owners scramble to create short-term fixes.

More power shifting to workers but efforts still fragmented

Particularly in Bangladesh, NGOs and government industry officials are educating garment workers about their rights and safety. (Like: You don’t hide under your station when a fire breaks out, which was the No. 1 worker response in a recent survey). Unions are forming. But there is still no global organized labor force.

Perfection is becoming the enemy of progress

In an effort to be seen as responsible, buyers and retailers are firing suppliers in greater numbers and pushing out press releases (e.g. H&M flaunted the dismissal of an Indian spinning mill the week prior to the conference). As Tom Smith of Sedex Global pointed out, these actions discourage transparency. Suppliers need the support of their partners to set standards and improve their capacity around better HR practices and working conditions.

Impact is being looked at holistically, but the consumer must be more involved

Of course, improved sustainability was a concern for many in the industry long before Rana Plaza. But the tragedy has given new immediacy to examining all of the ways textile and apparel can reduce negative impact and create positive. In addition to better labor conditions, a number of impressive efforts to reduce environmental impact were discussed at the conference.

At least one-third of the total environmental impact of garments happens at end-of-use. (For more on the consumer side of sustainable fashion, check out TriplePundit’s ongoing Sustainably Attired series.) Conference presenter Emily Scarlett of H&M shared how the company develops programs to help consumers reduce their footprint, such as repurposing garments in their Don’t Let Fashion Go To Waste program and a new initiative called Clevercare that nudges consumers to reduce energy use when caring for clothes.

Presenter Gildan is the only North American company in the textiles, apparel and luxury goods group to be included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices World Index. The pragmatic approach to sustainability by the company’s presenter, Garry Bell, was refreshing. Bell was asked: Why take a sustainable approach to fashion? His response was simple: The key to sustainability and supply chain is the search for profits. Some of Gildan’s sustainability innovations include a biological wastewater treatment system at the company’s Honduras facility, where water discharged into the river is virtually free of dyes and chemicals. In the same facility, Gildan invested in a biomass steam process to reach it’s 20 percent energy reduction target.

A lively discussion revolved around the new awareness of the conscious consumer. Taking this concept to future generations, Fashion Takes Action has developed a creative and forward-thinking education program called My Clothes My World. Students in grades four through eight learn about labor rights and the lifecycle assessment of the clothing process through fun and exploratory games. Students discover through label bingo who makes our clothes and where are they made.

Imagine if someone took the time to create a program similar to My Clothes My World when we were kids? Would the fashion and apparel process look different now?

Image credit: Flickr/marissaorton 

Elizabeth Dove is a specialist in strategically engaging the public, companies and government on sustainability and social change. She has worked as senior staff and consultant for initiatives that support the arts, child welfare, public health and particularly international development. Passionate about the power of collaboration, she seeks out projects that bring together different sectors to create value for their organizations and the broader community.  She is Senior Vice-President, Strategy at The Divinsky Group and an Associate at Open Spaces Learning, a Canadian change management firm helping companies realize business and social impact. Twitter: @EDove5 @openspaceslearn

Liza Horowitz is the founder of BumpItUp Digital. Her company helps SMEs and entrepreneurs fire up their communication potential, so they can thrive in the digital marketing world and attract sales.  Liza is the secret voice behind many tweets and blogs. You can find Liza networking, guest speaking at sustainability communication and social media events, and ghostwriting. She is passionate about great vegan food and supporting business owners to create positive profits with positive social & environmental impact.  Liza recently earned her Masters in Science, Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College, VT. She is also an Associate at Open Spaces Learning, a Canadian change management firm helping companies realize business and social impact. Twitter: @lzhorowitz @openspaceslearn

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