Three years after the Rana Plaza catastrophe the production conditions in the textile industry are raising more awareness than ever – among the consumers, as well as among the suppliers, distributors and users of promotional textiles and corporate wear. In spite of many initiatives for more ethical supply chains there is still plenty of need for action.
It is almost exactly three years ago that the most serious accident in the history of the textile industry happened, in the course of which 1,138 people died and over 2,000 more were injured: On April 24, 2013 in Savar, near the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, the Rana Plaza Building, which accommodated five textile factories, collapsed. Three of the eight floors had been erected illegally and although the workers had already informed the management about cracks in the walls prior to the building collapsing, they were instructed to carry on working. Rana Plaza was the macabre final of a series of accidents that took place within less than a year: On November 24, 2012 a fire in the Tazreen Factory in Dhaka claimed the lives of 117 people and 289 workers lost their lives on September 11, 2012 in the fire in the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, Pakistan. The reasons were the same in each case: Corruption, lacking safety precautions and complete overcrowding, combined with the fact that the people responsible ignored the warnings and complaints of the workers.
The name Rana Plaza became a synonym for the horrible side of a branch of industry that is characterised by price and time pressure more than any other branch and the resulting consequences for the producers. The sweat shop industry had been denounced for a long time, the brand manufacturers were criticised for their manufacturing and import practices, however it was the Rana Plaza catastrophe that turned the issue into a global discussion. “Rana Plaza was a shock and a wake-up call,” assesses Prama Bhardwaj, founder and CEO of the Londonbased company, Mantis World. “For many buyers, particularly major brands from the retail industry, ethical factors suddenly became more important than before. The Bangladesh Government also undertook action – the laws became stricter, the legal minimum wage was increased.” In May 2013, the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” came into effect, a programme for more building and fire protection safety in the Bangladesh textile industry, which was signed by over 200 companies from more than 20 countries. This was among other things a reaction to public pressure.
“Several retail companies such as H&M and C&A were among the forerunners after Rana Plaza and initiated changes in their supply chains,” stated Bhardwaj. “In the meantime, we can say about some of the factories: if we know these big retail brands are buying from them they are now more likely to be safe. This means a huge improvement compared to the situation that still prevailed 15 years ago: When I founded Mantis World at the beginning of the Century and visited a factory in Bangladesh for the first time, children were sat at the sewing machines. That shocked me and was one of the reasons why I made ethical production one of the basic prerequisites of my corporate philosophy. Today, the situation in Bangladesh is more heterogeneous: In the meantime, some of the most exemplary factories in the textile industry are located there, but on the other hand still some of the worst as well.”
Setbacks and moments of hope
Changes are implemented only very slowly among others things because of the sheer size of the global textile industry, which turns over more than 2.5 tril. US Dollars (approx. 2.2 tril. Euros) annually. According to Fashion United between 60 and 75 mil. people – two thirds of whom are women – work in the textile industry. In comparison: In 2000 it was only 20 mil. people. Nothing has changed in the mechanism of the mainstream market either – “fast fashion“ dominates the western textile markets: So-called micro seasons have taken the place of the two annual seasons, every few weeks the big cheap fashion chains present their new collections, which want to be sold of course. As long as this situation prevails, a simple formula applies: The materials and the transport won’t get any cheaper – hence the production is the only possible means of pushing the prices down. It took over two years for the required sum of over 30 mil. US Dollars (approx. 26 mil. Euros) to be finally raised so that all of the parties affected by the Rana Plaza catastrophe could be compensated – and many of the people concerned walked away empty-handed, because due to lacking or completely non-existent work papers they couldn’t prove their connection to the textile factories. Just a few weeks ago, the Clean Clothes Campaign announced a campaign day against H&M, because allegedly the supplier companies of the textile giant are still not all safe and on April 5, the Cambodian Government passed a law that significantly undermines the rights of workers and unions, contradicts the basic principles of the ILO (International Labour Organisation) – which was also signed by Cambodia – and which is considered to be a concession to the interests of foreign investors. It was preceded by violent protests which resulted in a number of deaths. Just a few examples that illustrate that the way from “fast” to “ethical” fashion is marked by setbacks – in the retail sector, but just as much in the B2B area.
However, the fact that the demand for more transparency and social equality is more than just a short-lived fad is encouraging. An ever-increasing number of consumers are aware that their favourite items of clothes don’t grow on trees or are conjured up by machines, but that they are indeed produced by people – and an increasing number of companies don’t want to have anything to do with sweat shops. “The demand for ethical sourcing is going to rise significantly in the promotion industry, certifications will become the norm,” stated Bhardwaj. “Brands for children, NGOs, independent brands, but also banks, breweries and IT companies: One can’t actually say that the demand comes from specific industries – every company for whom ethics play a role should also source its promotional products accordingly.” Incidentally, this also applies for corporate wear and work clothes – some communities are already trying to create more transparency when fitting out their employees. If such practices were pursued more extensively, a considerable amount of purchasing power would be exercised on the market – especially if the legal requirements were compulsory: “One can hope and it is not improbable that the legal framework conditions will become stricter,” Bhardwaj said. “A more recent example: The Modern Slavery Act in Great Britain. Companies that already implement strict standards are a step ahead of the others.”
However, enforcing these standards is a lot more demanding than the PR departments of some textile companies might suggest. “Each production country brings its own problems and challenges with it,” Bhardwaj said. “For example, in Bangladesh there is the problem that many producers work together with several subcontractors, who are not regulated by the control process. In Pakistan on the other hand the gender inequality is extreme and the legal specifications are not implemented or not sufficiently. In Tanzania, where we also produce – probably as the only major manufacturer in the industry – the legal standards are comparably high and the workers and unions enjoy many rights due to the country’s socialist history. The infrastructure on the other hand is partly a catastrophe.” Producing and sourcing in Europe offers a whole row of advantages here, whereby in the work-intensive and at the same time price-sensitive segment of promotional textiles companies that do so are only an exception so far. “There is definitely a trend towards ‘made in Europe’ on the retail market, the promotional products market on the other hand is to a large extent pricedriven,” reported José Dias, CEO of Picos, whose company produces in Braga, in the North of Portugal. “Yet, there are customers, who prefer to work together with us because they know that we adhere to the strict guidelines of the EU on labour law, health, safety and the environment.“ Two current surveys by the Clean Clothes Campaign prove that this is by no means always the case. The surveys talk about pitiful wages and unpaid, forced overtime in certain Polish and Czech textile factories.
“It is impossible to calculate the degree of sustainability of a textile product purely based on its country of origin,” said Bhardwaj. “One has to go into much more detail. Unethical production conditions can also prevail in Europe.” Therefore, one has to ensure oneself – two proven ways are membership in initiatives like the BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative), Sedex or the Fair Wear Foundation or by working together with seal organisations such as GOTS or Fairtrade (see box for explanations). The corporate and promotionwear specalist Brands Fashion for example relies on BSCI membership and is additionally GOTS-certified. “The guidelines of the BSCI categorically forbid child labour under the age of 14 and contain many further relevant factors, such as for example the observance of the minimum wages, working hours and measures on work safety and fire protection,” Sales Manager Franko Kahlert explained. “We give our production partners the possibility to carry out improvement measures after each initial audit. The factory has to commit itself to undertake concrete measures that we monitor at regular intervals in the course of re-audits. We work together with independent, accredited testing institutes for the auditing process. If our producers don’t abide by the agreements, we resolutely terminate the business relationship.“ Mantis World follows a similar strategy: “We work with Tanzania, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Our minimum requirement for all factories is BSCI but we encourage all our manufacturing partners to apply for a more stringent code such as SA 8000, ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative) or Fairwear Foundation,” reported Bhardwaj. “Certificates are essential, however they do not suffice. In most cases, personal contacts as well as regular visits are equally obligatory.”
Companies that take the issue seriously commit themselves beyond the requirements of audit platforms and seal organisations. Bhardwaj: “We go beyond the ‘tick box’ mentality and encourage all our partners to go beyond minimum recommendations and do something that is relevant and useful in their own community. For example our factory in Tanzania supports over 200 impoverished, orphaned or abandoned children with food, clothing and bedding. We also recently launched a training programme to attract more women into the workplace in partnership with our factory in Pakistan.” Brands Fashion, on the other hand, founded the project “Shirts for Life”, which supports a school in Thailand. The Executive Director, Ulrich Hofmann, explained: “’Shirts for Life’ is a fashion brand that we sell on the specialised trade market across several channels, via the web shop www.shirtsforlife.biz as well as via an own retail shop. The new collection will be both GOTS and Fairtrade-certified. For every shirt sold, one Euro is donated to the School for Life near Chiang Mai in Thailand, which offers around 140 children from poor and difficult backgrounds an education and a future. Companies also have the opportunity to support the project. Education is a key factor, when it comes down to enabling better living conditions long-term in the Asiatic sourcing countries.” “The problem isn’t the fact that our industry produces in Bangladesh and other cheap labour countries and it would be fatal to move out of these countries overnight,” added Kahlert. “The conditions in the production sites are the actual key issue and what is being done in order to ensure constant improvements – and here the companies that really want to get things moving have a lot of leeway to implement changes and take alternative paths.“ There are many other initiatives that the industry could learn from – one of them is the Ethical Fashion Forum, of which Bhardwaj is a board member.
“The Ethical Fashion Forum is an NGO based in London, which in the meantime has more than 10,000 members in over 100 countries. These are supported by the Source Platform: Including a sourcing and business database, online network, business intelligence platform and global programme of events, the platform offers a sustainability tool kit for the fashion sector. Up to 100 new members join it every week. The aim of the Ethical Fashion Forum is to create a new standard for the fashion industry within ten years. There is nothing comparable in the promotional textile industry so far and we were able to benefit greatly from the level of knowledge of platforms like the Ethical Fashion Forum. We wait for the day when what we do isn’t ‘Ethical Fashion’, but simply ‘Fashion’.” Whether the retail or the promotional products market: The textile sector is still a long way off from becoming one industry in which both terms can no longer be separated from one another. However, it would already be a start if the attributes “fast” and “cheap” no longer took priority. One can only hope that no more catastrophes like in Rana Plaza have to happen before this is the case.
// Till Barth
photos: Brands Fashion; Fairtrade International; Mantis World