Photo by Dan McDougall from the Sunday Times of London
When the bigger picture comes to light, the intersection of social and environmental sustainability can get complicated…
A devastating article in the Sunday Times of London paints the cruel picture of negligent environmental practices in the garment industry of Lesotho, Africa – practices for which Gap, and most ironically Gap (RED), play a foundational role.
The story is bleak: an eight year old, homeless rag picker comes face to face with the hazards of waste management gone horribly awry on a daily basis. The local river runs blue from denim dyes, the cotton scraps are burned openly in the heap, and she and her fellow orphans cough up black soot all night. The fumes and chemicals cause her eyes to water constantly and she runs the heavy risk of slicing her hands and feet open in the razors and needles buried in the towering stacks of scrap denim. It’s our worst nightmare. It’s exactly what we don’t want to know about our jeans. The article reads,
“Gap! Gap! Gap!” comes the sudden cry from the 12-year-old leader of a destitute army of rag pickers patrolling the vast waste dump…Thousands of Gap and Levi’s labels, buttons and studs for stonewashed jeans and huge quantities of heavily dyed cotton and denim pile down over their heads, burying them up to their waists.
Just as ironic as the fact that these are Gap (RED) products, is the fact that Lesotho was once celebrated as an equity-building victory, i.e. employing people with AIDS to make garments that donate profits to AIDS organizations through the innovative (RED) campaign. (An estimated 30% of the factory workers in Lesotho are HIV positive.) Bono even toured a garment factory in Lesotho to bring global attention to the project. The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) has long battled to keep the garment industry afloat and funded, succeeding in keeping Gap, Levis and Walmart as customers in a competitive market. The Lesotho Garment industry is described by the ITGLWF as a “Lifeline” – turning what was once a raw export (cotton) into a more profitable export good (jeans.) It’s a smart strategy, but somewhere down the line, somebody turned a blind eye and something went awry.
Here is where it gets complicated, or for the fatalists among us, it gets realistic. Supply chains are long, and even though Gap Inc. employs 80 full timers to trek the globe ensuring that all labor regulations are met, the same strict code of ethics is more lenient around environmental concerns. Unlike labor issues, the problem of pollution is often portrayed in a global context, or twice removed from first-hand human experience. It’s for this reason, and because of consumer and legislative pressures, that Gap has placed their main sustainability focus on labor. However, there are always serious human impacts to un-responsible environmental practices, even when it’s not immediately apparent…and when it becomes public that children are suffering directly from your factory’s deplorable dumping violations, the tables are turned.
To their credit, Gap Inc. has been active on the issue of Lesotho. After the article was published they promptly moved this topic to the top of their Gap Inc. FAQ. The company released a statement committing to an in-depth, 3rd party investigation, education and training for waste and disposal, and a summit for stakeholders and the Lesotho Government. Seems a sound quality control strategy, though the question of why their factories had not previously been trained on waste/disposal issues, or how the factory dumping practices had gone unnoticed, has not been answered.
The truth remains that Gap themselves are in fact twice- removed from the human experience of their factories’ dumping practices. Its up to them to get compliance at their factory sites, and this is urgent and long overdue in Lesotho. But health and safety conditions for children picking rags at the industrial dumping grounds is a larger social issue that the company is contributing to, but not wholly responsible for. So while the situation is devastating, how much of it is actually Gap’s responsibility?
How can we convince the textile giants that while environmental regulations may end with the government, setting the bar for their industry has to start with them?
I reached out twice to Gap Inc.’s media contact about this issue to find out how things were progressing with the investigation, and to gather a statement or two to add dimension to this blog. I’m still waiting on a callback – and if I get it, I’ll add it as a comment. If I don’t get a callback, maybe you’ll have more luck?
Gap Inc. Corporate Communications
– Kate Cook, Brand Strategist, Saatchi & Saatchi S
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