Fixing our Apparel Industry

The global apparel industry has provided an influx of economic opportunities in developing countries. An issue is the disconnect major apparel brands have with workers in their supply chain. The complexity has led to neglect and limited action towards ensuring that human rights and social welfare are not violated.

Global Fashion Facade & "Progress"
Global Fashion Facade & “Progress”

There has been a proliferation of news regarding the catastrophic Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka Bangladesh. Several journalists suggest that these sorts of tradegies are not expected to stop. Bangladesh has had a decade’s worth of deaths attributed to neglect in the garment factory workplace. To date, over 430 bodies have been recovered with a rising toll from the factory collapse. This neglect is unexceptable. Only two major brands have come forward including Primark from the UK and Loblaw from Canada. They are offering compensation to the families of victims. Is a monetary compensation enough when it is predicted that these tradegies will continue?

Bangladesh heavily depends on the garment industry that contributes $40 billion to the economy. There is fear that apparel companies will seek the easy way out by simply not manufacturing in Bangladesh anymore, and fear that consumers will boycott brands involved in the neglect and lack of social responsibility. These are not solutions that will help Bangladesh come out of this chaos.

Large role in producing our clothes & facing horrific consequences
Large role in producing our clothes & facing horrific consequences

Online web campaign, Labour Behind the Label, is encouraging people to sign the “Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement” to urge companies to take action. After the Tazreen fire, Wal-Mart indicated that they were going to enforce this policy to prevent future catastrophies.

With the complexity of the apparel supply chain it seems there will always be a disconnect. Nike has been working on wage and working condition issues in their factories for 15 years and their social responsibility reports convey that there is still a lot of progress to be made. Achieving social responsibility is especially difficult for companies that did not begin with these initiatives. These companies have to completely re-structure the way they do business.

In the long future this may be a possibility:

The “Toxic Threads” report from November 2012 revealed that clothes from major brands had traces of carcinogenic toxins that could be harmful to human health. This novel, scientific information spurred great interest from the public. Over 400,000 people signed the Fashion Detox Manifesto to urge major brands to ‘clean up’ their supply chain. In response, 15 major apparel brands have pledged to detoxify their supply chain by 2020 including Levi’s, H&M, Zara, Victoria’s Secret, and Marks & Spencer. This is a large step forward in preventing future environmental degradation from the apparel industry. But we still have 7 years to wait and see if these major brands will be able to ‘clean up’ their supply chain and stop the use of dyes and finishes that are harmful to aquatic ecosystems and pose risks to human health.

From Toxic Threads Greenpeace report, 2012
From Toxic Threads Greenpeace report, 2012

A lot of faith is being placed on the future of the apparel industry to become more sustainable and socially responsible, but it will take a lot of time if these brands continue to work on an individual basis. Collaboration among companies can foster greater success in meeting sustainable and social responsibility goals.

The upcoming HIGG index (adapted from Nike’s Material Sustainability Index by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition) is an industry-wide tool that will help companies keep track of the sustainability of their products.

It is vital for industry-wide social responsibility standards to required in the global market. The UN Global Compact emphasizes respect for human rights, labor rights, and anti-corruption. Companies should not be allowed to do business if there will be exploitation. Companies should be required to have WRAP certification that assures factories throughout the supply chain are following humane and ethical standards.

Developing countries themselves must also take responsibility in taking care of their people. Corruption, as seen with the owner Mohammed Sohel, only propagates social injustices. Policies must be established that provide workers with rights in the workplace.

U.S. apparel companies must make strong efforts to improve working conditions in factories that are part of their supply chain. They must commit themselves to ethical standards and continue to help these countries develop economically. Assuring living wages to workers is one step that must be taken to help people live above the poverty line. Few companies have taken this action. Marks & Spencer is the only company that has established living wage standards in 15 of their factories; Gap offered living wages for a short period, but decided to stop. Several companies including Nike and H&M have indicated interest in offering living wages (Labour Behind the Label, 2011).

Providing living wages for people in developing countries is essential because it will provide them a path towards self-sufficiency, which is extremely important since several developing countries have high risk cities.

Maplecroft Climate Change Vulnerability Index, 2012
Maplecroft Climate Change Vulnerability Index, 2012

Maplecroft predicts which cities are most vulnerable to climate change based on population, limited governmental capacity to improve conditions, and significance in the global economy. In Bangladesh, sea levels are expected to rise and companies that manufacture clothes there will have two choices: 1) providing aid to their workers/ climate refugees, or 2) take the easy way out and go to another country that has less complications.

All apparel companies must solidify their ethical code of conduct and act based on what is best for society. These companies are major corporations and have the power to instill change in addressing the vast injustices throughout their supply chains. Several companies are taking profit loses to help their workers in developing countries including Marks & Spencer and Eileen Fisher. Less attention must be placed on the bottom line, and must be placed on achieving goals of altrusim.

We currently see altruism in the apparel industry at small scales when companies donate part of their profits to organizations throughout the world (Edun, Patagonia, Gap Red, Toms shoes, etc.) More fair trade is also apparent (Eileen Fisher, Edun, Ten Thousand Villages, etc.). As one of the oldest and most well-established industries in the world, the apparel industry can surely make stronger efforts to improve social and environmental welfare for sake of world-wide progress.

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