For many years now, we’ve known that the way we consume has negative consequences on both people and planet. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, which killed more than 1,100 people working for major clothing brands, shone a light on the appalling working conditions in sweatshops.
On 27 September 2022, Enabel’s TDC hosted a conference on ethical clothing, followed by a fashion show. The event was attended by more than 150 people. The debates focused on two key questions: Have working conditions in the textile industry improved since the collapse of Rana Plaza? And is Made in Europe a guarantee of decent work?
Has the situation in Bangladesh changed since then?
Zoé Dubois from achAct: ‘The collapse of Rana Plaza was a major shock, but it also brought about a very concrete step forwards with the arrival of the Bangladesh Working Conditions Agreement. However, this agreement only concerns the safety of the buildings, not the living wages of the workers. The agreement commits the companies that sign it to three things: to disclose their subcontractors in Bangladesh (already a challenge in an industry lacking in transparency), to carry out independent safety audits of the factories that supply the brands, and to contribute financially to the maintenance of factories when safety issues are identified.’
The successor to this agreement, the International Agreement on Health and Safety in the Textile and Clothing Industry, entered into force in September 2021. This new agreement covers not only safety issues, but also the health of workers. It was set up by the Ready-Made-Garment (RMG) Sustainability Council (RSC), an independent tripartite body made up of brands, unions and industry representatives. ‘The intention is to extend it to other countries because Bangladesh is of course not the only one with safety problems relating to the construction of buildings. There are a lot of requests, for example to extend the agreement to Pakistan,’ says Zoé Dubois.
Made in Europe is unfortunately no guarantee
When you hear stories about the situation of women workers on the other side of the world, it is tempting to see Made in Europe as a guarantee of good working conditions. However, Bojana Tamindžija, Serbian member of the Clean Clothes Campaign, points to the deplorable situation in Eastern European countries: ‘After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the Eastern Bloc came to an end, we saw a massive destruction of the local economy. We became a kind of cheap labour pool. In Serbia, for example, we lost 65% of manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2009. Unemployment is huge, which makes it easy for companies to exploit the situation. The low wages mean that most workers are forced to take on another job. Women often have two jobs on top of their family responsibilities like caring for the children and housework. We are dealing with a phenomenon of ‘time poverty’, because these women don’t have time to do anything but work, both at home and elsewhere, to earn money.
Living wage: a key element for ethical fashion
‘Eastern European countries therefore compete with each other to attract investors against a backdrop of very high unemployment. Many governments provide subsidies to attract foreign companies. In Serbia, for example, the government gave the company Geox 10,000 euros for every new job. There is a kind of “race to the bottom” going on that is resulting in lower wages and weaker social legislation. The statutory minimum wages do not reflect the cost of living at all. They are negotiated between companies and our governments. That’s why we’ve calculated a “cross-border” living wage, a concept that is completely new to our regions,’ explains Bojana Tamindžija.
Changes at 3 levels
So it is the business model, regardless of geographical location, and our buying behaviour that needs to change. According to Tatiana De Wée of Fashion Revolution Belgium, the changes need to take place at political, consumer and industry levels.
“First of all, legislation is needed at the political level around companies’ due diligence on human rights and the environment. Secondly, we advocate a cultural change at the consumer level. Most people don’t know where the clothes they buy come from, who made them, and they don’t ask questions about the price. We don’t always need to buy sustainable clothes, which can be very expensive. Our clothing needs should be seen as a pyramid, just as there is a food pyramid. We should first look at what is in our wardrobe, because we by no means wear all our clothes, and see how we can reuse them daily. We can also develop other practices. For example, if we need a dress for one evening, we can consider renting it instead of buying it. We can swap, borrow and also repair clothes. And thirdly, of course, the industry has to follow, especially when it comes to paying a living wage to workers.”
The EU wants legislation to force companies to take human rights and the environment into account.
On a political level, when it comes to trade law, Europe has the upper hand. In April 2020, the European Commission announced a legislative initiative on corporate social responsibility, in particular through due diligence. This is an obligation for companies to identify, prevent, mitigate and report on the negative effects of their activities (or those of their subcontractors and suppliers) on human rights and the environment.
What are the challenges and what is needed to make this draft directive even more effective?
For Bojana Tamindžija, it is clear that such legislation is primarily about ‘a better distribution of profits, because if you look at the difference between the wages women workers earn and the profits the fashion industry makes, it has stop. It’s completely unbalanced. And of course, a whole range of things need to be included, such as better working conditions, but also an effective and robust complaints procedure so that employees know who to turn to when they have problems in certain value chains. The proposal on the table doesn’t go far enough. It needs to apply to all companies, regardless of their size, and address the entire value chain, right down to the subcontractors. The process must be transparent and, above all, the legislation should include the right to a living wage, as this is linked to a fair distribution of profits,’ says Bojana Tamindžija.
Sustainability manager at Stanley/Stella, Michel Hublet indicates that if the legislation applies to all companies, ‘the differences between large and small companies must also be taken into account. Larger companies have much more financial resources and staff to ensure adherence than smaller companies have. Stanley/Stella has a limited number of suppliers and has offices in Bangladesh, which allow us to be very close to our factories, but this is not necessarily the case for all companies, which find it very complicated to set up this whole duty of care process. Politicians but also NGOs have a role to play in encouraging cooperation between suppliers and companies. We need platforms to be able to work together and bring about improvements.’
For Zoé Dubois, ‘companies carrying out individual-level due diligence is very complicated. Structural problems will not be solved by voluntary measures at the individual level alone. That’s why we advocate agreements, such as the International Agreement in Bangladesh, that bring companies to the table to participate collectively in the improvements to factories. The same applies to the law on duty of care so that companies can be held accountable for their purchases and business practices. Years of voluntary measures have brought about no change. The poor working conditions in Bangladesh are not purely down to Bangladesh itself. They are also the result of the pressure to keep wages very low, to continue to attract investors… Companies also have a role to play here, in the purchasing practices they impose on their suppliers and in the pressure they exert on states and suppliers with the threat of relocation. For example, Ethiopia is now the new Eldorado in terms of textiles because it is even cheaper than Bangladesh.
Some companies are moving in the right direction
On the business side, Michel Hublet sees several challenges to actually improving transparency and working conditions in the clothing supply chain. ‘The first element is related to the complexity of the value chain. If I take the example of Stanley/Stella, which has just celebrated its tenth anniversary, our young company has grown considerably. Given the growth of the company, it would be easy to multiply the number of suppliers. Instead, we try to limit the number of suppliers so that we can have better control, more involvement and a long-term relationship. We have ten suppliers in Bangladesh and one in China. We have people in each factory, quality controllers who are in daily contact with the management and people at the factory. In Bangladesh, we also have an office of 30 people who monitor the factories on a daily basis. In addition, we use various tools, such as audits, before accepting a new supplier. These audits relate to several environmental, social and safety issues. There are also annual audits and monthly reports on practices, problems with employees and workers. We even have daily reports on overtime, which is a big problem in these countries and something we don’t want to become the norm in the factories we work with.
The second challenge is to strengthen the cooperation between the different links in a value chain and to go beyond the level of the clothing suppliers to the cotton fields. Stanley/Stella would need more than 15,000 cotton farmers for its clothing sales. Going as far as the level of the farmer is indeed very complex.
The third point is the cultural difference and the difference in objectives between countries. Raising the wages of workers is on the agenda and we’ve even given presentations to the senior management of factories in Bangladesh to tell them that we are willing to pay more. But that’s not how it works.
The minimum wages are set every five years by the trade organisation (BGMEA) which doesn’t necessarily allow wages to be raised at will, because if a factory raises wages unilaterally, this threatens to create tensions with other factories (employees in other factories may react, go on strike, etc.). So it’s not that easy. Also, BGMEA and Bangladesh have an interest in keeping wages low in order to secure the country’s competitiveness against other textile-producing countries.
Stanley/Stella also works at the end of the chain and tries to be as close to its customers as it is to its suppliers. ‘I think our company is one of the only ones that has so-called “official dealers” who we place demands on, especially in terms of the environment. For example, we sell GOTS-certified organic cotton and ask our customers to use inks that don’t harm the environment. We involve our suppliers and customers in our carbon analysis, and have calculated the emissions from the cotton field to end-of-life of the products.
As a buyer, the government also has a role to play in promoting more ethical clothing production
The City of Ghent is a good example of a government initiative on the topic of responsible procurement, especially in the clothing sector. ‘Our strategy is based on two axes,’ explains Virginie Verstraete, policy adviser in the International Solidarity team at the City of Ghent, ‘the supply through our purchasing policy and the demand by raising awareness among the citizens of Ghent. We try to bring the two together.”
“Fair trade is part of our purchasing policy because it provides important leverage for a sustainable economy and society. We use Fairtrade certification for four product categories of the City’s purchases: food, natural stone, new technologies and clothing. After the collapse of Rana Plaza, we thought it was essential to work on textiles, also because this sector played an important role in the history of Ghent’s industrial past. But first we carried out a study with partners such as the VVSG (Flemish Association of Cities and Municipalities) to get answers to a number of questions: Is it feasible for suppliers to meet fair trade specifications? How far can we take it? At the end of this study, it was decided that fair trade would be an important part of the City’s procurement of work clothing.”
Lessons learnt and experiences from the City of Ghent
‘To share our experience, we put together a toolkit that explains how to put out a tender, how to find suppliers and what to look out for, such as whether the required standards are realistic.
Having strict requirements is not that easy. It is important to explore the market beforehand to exchange information with potential suppliers and see what they can offer, what is feasible. You have to enter into a dialogue and seek cooperation. Suppliers are willing to do this, but they must also be given the opportunity to develop.
It is also important to find partners to carry out the checks. We require Fairtrade- and organic-certified cotton in our tenders, but we cannot carry out the checks ourselves. That’s why we are looking for independent partners to audit the suppliers. These are two important lessons we can share.’
Is it always easy for a company to meet the specifications of governments that want to adopt more sustainability in their purchases? What are the challenges?
Michel Hublet: ‘The biggest problem with the public sector, although this also applies to the private sector, is the lack of knowledge about products. What is a “sustainable” product? Everyone’s talking about “sustainability”, but what does it mean? What is behind the certifications that have wildly different standards? A second point is that price is unfortunately still the most important factor in public procurement. If the government wants sustainable products, sustainability must be the first criterion when awarding contracts, and – just like quality – should be more important than the price. It shouldn’t just be a “nice to have” at the end of the financial negotiations.
The government needs to be educated about this. A few months ago, we had a session on this subject with the Brussels members of parliament, organised by Enabel’s TDC. We explained what a sustainable product is, what the certifications are and what the differences are between those certifications. It is also important to get to know the different potential suppliers as this is part of a process of continuous development.’
A campaign to start discussions with the European Union
Public awareness also plays a very important role in the move towards more ethical production and consumption. The ‘Good clothes, fair pay’ campaign directly targets the living wage of women workers. ‘Together with other organisations, our goal is to collect a million signatures so that we can start discussions with the European Union and apply some pressure. Because at the moment we see that the living wage is a stumbling block in the corporate duty of care legislation that is currently being prepared and which doesn’t go far enough,’ explains Tatiana De Wée.
The exploitation of workers and the environment is not a matter of geography, but of business models, the rules of the ‘game’, and behaviour that needs to change. The documentary Open Secret : au cœur de la mode made in UK shows the disastrous working conditions of nearly 10,000 clothes makers in Leicester, the historic city at the heart of the British textile industry. It reminds us that ‘Made in Europe’ is no guarantee.
Respecting the rights of workers in the textile industry and paying wages that enable them to live with dignity requires commitment from everyone: from states, through binding legislation and responsible procurement policies; from companies, through greater transparency in supply chains and purchasing practices that respect human rights and the environment; and from citizens/consumers who – instead of opting for very cheap clothing – can invest in a quality of clothing that lasts longer, enables better wages and causes less pollution at the end of the chain. We owe it to the thousands of people who produce and make the clothes that protect us and contribute to the image we portray to others.
Coordinator Trade for Development Centre – Enabel