Apparel Worker Well-Being Gets a Fresh Look

Editor’s Note: This post is part of TriplePundit’s ongoing coverage of SXSW Eco 2015. You can read all of our coverage here.

levi-strauss-un-fall-symposium-2013-1 “Do you know where the clothes you are wearing right now were made?” Only a few hands went up out of a crowd of roughly 100 at SXSW Eco last week, when asked this question by Daniel Lee, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation (LSF).

If a room full of sustainability nerds – who likely consider themselves to be fairly “conscious consumers” – aren’t able answer this question (myself included), it’s safe to say that the general public can’t either. This is not to say consumers don’t care. In fact, recent data demonstrates that the majority (84 percent) of global consumers seek out responsible products whenever possible, but that availability of these products is the largest barrier to not purchasing more.

So, why this disconnect between consumer demand for more ethical products and a lack of awareness of how and where our clothes are made? Upon closer examination, the apparel industry appears to have a unique challenge when it comes to consumer engagement. Not only are apparel supply chains extremely complex, but as Lee asserted, the trend of “fast fashion” has also exacerbated the issue.

Fast fashion has a bad reputation for being inexpensive and not built to last — moving quickly from design to production to retail floor, in order to capture the latest fashion trends. To address this, Lee believes we need a cultural shift toward endurance of apparel products.

“Durability and quality have to be the value proposition for our clothing, instead of the thrill of buying the next new thing,” Lee said in Austin last week.

He predicts that we are reaching a tipping point with consumers, but the industry is still struggling with how to make those consumer connections.

One organization Lee highlighted that is working to engage consumers in a fresh way to learn about the people behind the products they buy is Remake, a startup seeded by the Levi Strauss Foundation. The organization’s vision is to create a community of conscious shoppers through film, visual storytelling and immersive journeys.

As Ayesha Barenblat, Remake’s founder, explained, “We aim to move away from the pain narrative that has for so long paralyzed consumers into inaction and instead build human connections between shoppers and makers.” By pain narrative, Barenblat is referring to changing the conversation away from scare tactics, shaming or short-lived calls to boycott after a factory disaster toward more meaningful engagement.

For example, Remake wrote a recent blog post on Fashion Week, imploring consumers to get in touch with Fashion Week organizers to ask why there was no sustainable fashion on the runway. And a remake film titled “Parallel Lives” compares the life of a female millennial shopper in the U.S. and a female factory worker in Haiti around the same age. Remake hopes that these types of engagement will pull on the heart-strings of consumers and spur action.

From compliance to lasting engagement

While consumers demand more responsible products, other stakeholder groups like labor/human rights advocates and shareholders are increasing their expectations of transparency from apparel brands. But supply chain visibility is not enough: Companies are feeling the pressure to do more than simply follow the letter of the law, but to demonstrate actual social impact within their supply chains.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s journey is a telling case study of how one company put effort and resources into moving from compliance to deeper engagement with its supply chain and saw results. Lee told the SXSW Eco audience the story of how LSF worked for 15 years in LS&Co.’s key sourcing countries, putting millions of dollars behind supply chain worker programs to address issues like health and financial security. These programs, Lee lamented, while well-intended and far reaching, were not sustained after LSF left. “It was essentially factory-based charity, and we weren’t satisfied.”

LS&Co. decided to up the ante in 1991, in the early days of apparel outsourcing of labor, by adopting a code of conduct called its Terms of Engagement (TOE), or “the code that launched a thousand codes,” as Lee put it. The TOE guides the company’s supplier requirements and encompasses standards around child labor, forced labor, disciplinary practices, working hours, wages and benefits, freedom of association, discrimination, and health and safety of its manufacturing suppliers. At the 20-year anniversary of its TOE, the company decided it still needed to raise to bar.

So in 2011, LSF partnered with the business side to establish the Improving Worker Well-Being initiative for apparel workers in communities where LS&Co.’s products are manufactured. The idea was to go further than just a compliance-focused “do no harm” labor policy and truly collaborate with suppliers on the ground to make a tangible impact on workers’ lives.

“We can talk about sustainability until we are blue in the face, but this is really about people,” Lee asserted.

Good for workers, good for business

LS&Co. recently finished pilots of the Worker Well-Being initiative in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Haiti and Pakistan, where it provides support, surveys and curricula to suppliers on topics like financial security and women’s health, connecting suppliers with local partners to help them meet the TOE.

While gathering social impact data and showing ROI of these programs in a compelling way is a challenge, Lee is confident that vendors who embrace this will be more competitive in the marketplace. “The difference now is that we don’t want it to be a one-off. We want to make it sustainable and make suppliers see that what’s good for employees is good for business.” Across LS&Co.’s supply chain, its vendors have witnessed a return of up to $3 for every $1 invested in Worker Well-Being initiatives.

One of the biggest obstacles in implementing these programs is finding the right partners; the NGO sector serving supply chains needs help in building up capacity in developing nations to better serve workers. That’s why LS&Co. focuses its programs in countries with the most marginalized communities. “We look at who is the most impacted, and invest in nimble organizations to build bridges with suppliers,” Lee explained.

One partnership in particular that has proven successful for LS&Co. is with Business for Social Responsibility’s HERproject, which provides workplace-based empowerment programs to low-income women in global supply chains. Many female factory workers in developing nations, as Lee described, are in their late teens and entering wage labor for the first time, with limited knowledge about labor rights, reproductive health or the cities they are moving into. HERproject supports these women with programs that promote health, economic empowerment and women’s rights.

This collaboration was a no-brainer because the majority of LS&Co.’s products are made by women, and HERproject programs have been shown to deliver partners like LS&Co. a 4-to-1 return on investment, in the form of decreased absenteeism, increased productivity and reduced turnover of female factory workers.

Building on legacy

Lee pointed out that this work of standing up for marginalized people isn’t really reinventing the wheel for Levi Strauss, but rather builds on a 163-year history of being a values-driven company.

During the Great Depression, LS&Co. put employees on a three-day work week and accumulated an overstock of product instead of firing its employees. It desegregated factories in the 1940s before it was mandated in the 1960s, responded to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and created one of the first supplier codes of conduct in the apparel industry in the 1990s.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Lee said at SXSW Eco, “and we have to live up to that.”

Image credit: Levi Strauss & Co. Unzipped blog

Lesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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