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Transparency, Accountability and Better Working Conditions

By Nithin Coca

Transparency is a big buzzword these days, particularly in textiles, where there is a real momentum to transform an industry where unsafe working conditions are still far too common. But what does it really meant to be transparent, and how does that translate into real changes in factories around the world?

The movement to improve worker safety took center stage after the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,137 workers. Most of the companies that were connected to the disaster were caught by surprise, unaware that such dangerous practices were taking place along their supply chains. Part of this was willful ignorance, but part of it was also the complete lack of a structure to monitor, implement and check-up on standards around the world.

“Traditional supply chains are no longer business-as-usual for brands that design, develop and source products,” fashion startup maven Laura McCann Ramsey told Apparel Magazine. “Corporate initiatives around supply chain transparency have become just as essential as a brand’s logo, mission statement and value proposition.”

Today, all across the developing world are initiatives aimed at increasing transparency. Yet, to this day, worker abuses and unsafe conditions are just as prevalent as they were a few years ago. Yes, there has been progress, but it has not come fast enough, nor has it positively impacted as many workers as is necessary.

“Most of the solutions that have been employed have been factory-by-factory solutions,” Jill Tucker, head of supply chain innovation and transformation with the C&A Foundation, told TriplePundit. “This usually impacts a few lucky workers – who happen to be in those factories that produce for reputation-sensitive brands.”

The C&A Foundation is pushing for industry-wide -- and country-wide -- standards for several reasons. Firstly, such standards would level the playing field, so that those companies putting more money into better factories and higher worker pay are not being undercut by competitors, but also so more workers are impacted. Transparency at a broader level is key for this.

Also key is sharing information, so that an entire industry is held to the same standards and there is no “leakage.” One initiative aimed at improving cooperation and data sharing is the U.K.-based Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex), which allows members to share data on a wide variety of metrics, including labor standards.

Technology can play a key role, too. We can, in real time, track suppliers, look into practices in their factories and even communicate directly with workers. For example, RFID tags, which are becoming smaller and cheaper, could allow products to be tracked down to single items. Dole, for example, now labels each banana it sells with a farm number, allowing consumers to see exactly where their delicious fruit comes from.

Getting data is one thing. Ensuring that it can be translated, understood and leveraged for real change is another.

“The problem is very long, dense reports that make it hard to compare one brand to another,” Tucker told us.”We're trying to make a database that is simpler and [easier] to compare across companies.”

One example of an initiative that is using data to promote transparency is the Better Factories Cambodia project, started in 2001 with support from the International Labor Organization (ILO). Transparency proved to be a key tool in driving incremental, measurable changes in the country's large, and growing, garment industry.

Lastly, but not to be forgotten, is ensuring that workers are part of any transparency initiative. That means not only ensuring their voices, and concerns, are part of any information gathering, but also that they have access to information to make informed decisions and, if necessary, demand their rights.

“Workers at this point are often not consulted and don't have channels to speak to management,” Tucker said. “Transparency provides data that is important to both workers and management.”

One thing is clear: Just being transparent is not enough. The next step is figuring out how transparency can empower real changes that lead to the ethical, sustainable, accountable supply chains that consumers are demanding. Instead of responding to disasters, such as the Rana Plaza collapse or the Foxconn iPhone factory suicides, companies could be proactive -- using data, technology and shared knowledge to prevent abuses and disasters from happening. Now that would be real change.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post reported that Sedex is headquartered in Sweden. The post has been updated to reflect the organization's correct base in the U.K. 

Photo Credit: Honest Reporting via Flickr and Unsplash

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca