Five years ago today, over 1,000 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. Since then, certain responsible garment brands have made remarkable progress towards improving factory safety. However, problems are still widespread, deeply rooted and include many other labour-rights issues. We need a transformation of this industry. To make that happen, all garment brands need to take on an active role and be held accountable for what happens in their supply chains.
There are signs of change. Some of our visits to Bangladeshi factories in recent years have been quite encouraging. We can see that the Bangladesh Accord managed to achieve specific improvements in structural, fire, and electrical safety at garment factories. Other industry initiatives demonstrated the benefit of uniting coalitions of leading garment brands to work on better conditions. However, the brands that do use their leverage to try to improve garment workers’ lives do not cover all garment factories worldwide, not even those in Bangladesh.
Dictating the laws
We need all brands on board. Say you own a garment brand and you also want workers at the opposite end of the supply chain to profit from the brand’s successes, as they should. You start discussing wages and safety measures with factory managers. They are happy to work with a brand that is willing to share responsibility.
You’re confident that you will succeed in creating change, especially if you’re joining forces with other brands that source from that factory. You purchase 10 percent of the factory’s output. Another well-known brand buys 50 percent and 11 others only a small share. However, they appear to be less interested in your mission, which means you can only achieve so much.
Brands are hardly ever a factory’s only buyer. They usually don’t own or manage the factories from which they source. They also do not dictate the laws of garment production countries. Still, brands have tremendous leverage over both. They have economic power to demand improvement of conditions. And as the main beneficiaries and drivers of the garment industry, brands have a huge responsibility for the welfare of the workers who make their clothes.
Who made your clothes?
Along with quality and price requirements, garment brands can also call for decent working conditions. First they need to know exactly where their clothes are actually made, understand their supply chain and the risks of (hidden) subcontractors. Brands must scrutinise their suppliers, conduct research and resolve problems with the factory when they occur; it’s all too easy to do a quick check of factories and decide that nothing is wrong and that it should come down to the factory to solve matters.
Also, the purchasing practices of brands have a huge influence, positive or negative, on the lives of employees in clothing factories. Brands need to be willing to change their business practices, like better production planning to reduce pressure on factories, and adjusting prices.
Bad for business
No garment brand would say that they want to produce their clothes at the expense of the workers who sew them. This is bad for people, business and reputation. Consumers, civil society and governments are placing mounting pressure on brands to start working on safer workplaces and to be more transparent. International guidelines and -in some countries- changing regulations also mean that brands have an increased duty to ensure that their clothing is produced under good conditions. Change is in motion and brands need to get on board before they get left behind.
Everyone on board
There are garment brands (at Fair Wear Foundation we know them all too well) that are investing in trying to make a concrete, lasting difference in the lives of garment workers. Although these brands aren’t perfect, they do act and achieve results. However, they cannot resolve the issues on their own, and it’s not just in their supply chains that problems occur. We need all brands on board.
And not just the brands either, but everyone else. In most cases, you can only do so much before it comes down to a need for systemic change in the industry. Therefore we also need governments, NGOs, factories, garment workers, trade unions, and consumers to contribute their strengths.
Wages are often too low and overtime persistent. There is violence and harassment on the factory floor. But the garment industry doesn’t have to be like this. On the contrary: the industry has great potential to contribute positively to women workers’ lives, and fair supply chains are possible. All garment brands must take responsibility for what they sell. We know that sustainable changes don’t happen overnight, but brands can and should start tomorrow. Not by creating only one sustainable product in their collections, but by changing the way they do business in order to support positive changes at factories and contribute to ensuring garment production countries flourish.
Associate Director of Fair Wear Foundation
(This op-ed was published on Tuesday 24 April on The Fashion Law)