Even as the fashion industry has made major strides in corporate social responsibility over the last two decades, the tragic factory fire in Pakistan last month shows the sector still has a long way to go.
The fire in Karachi, which killed 300 people, also shows that, as the industry rushes to find the next low-cost producer after China, companies almost have to start all over again in ensuring compliance with CSR issues such as safety, workers’ rights and environmental issues in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, and in areas in Central America.
Even labor-rights groups acknowledge that progress has been made by some of the industry’s leading corporate players. Child labor, although still in existence in several countries, has been reduced, and awareness and dedication to ensuring that garment workers around the world receive minimum wage and overtime and that manufacturing methods become more sustainable has increased considerably. RELATED STORY: Evaluating the Cost of Sustainability >>
But the fire at Ali Enterprises Inc. in Pakistan, which was certified by an independent auditor a month before the blaze, exposed weaknesses in the system.
It “raises the whole other issue of external certification audits versus internal audits,” said Colleen Von Haden, senior manager of supplier sustainability at Timberland LLC.
Timberland began training a compliance team using internal staff in 2005 to conduct audits at its 500 foreign apparel suppliers, in more than 30 countries, because it found many problems with external audits, including falsified records and workers being coached, she said.
“I have a lot of respect and trust in the organizations and the certification process,” she said. “But the Pakistan factory was just an example of how systems can become weak…can become very corrupt. The quality of audits can vary, whether they are internal or external. I choose to believe I know the quality of our own audits better…and that gives me a level of confidence.”
Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said, “When you see things like the Pakistani fire happening in a certified facility…there is nothing to show that workers were able to claim their rights or have their voices heard. The bigger issue here is really the ability of workers to speak up.…We have been looking at whether there are robust grievance mechanisms in place at factories and transparent remediation [in CSR programs]. How do you assure freedom of association and collective bargaining rights? All of that goes hand in hand with decent wages.…In the apparel industry, we have not seen an increase in collective bargaining in at least 20 years since the codes of conduct have been in place.”
Apparel brands and retailers are jointly and individually taking extra steps to address the fire safety issues that have plagued factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan, in particular.
“We’ve been reviewing health and safety issues, and fire issues in those countries, as those issues have been highlighted through the recent tragedies,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. “Certainly we will take additional steps with our suppliers in commissioning electrical audits.”
Kobori added that Levi’s plans to conduct the electrical audits at its suppliers in Bangladesh. The brand currently has a total of 450 suppliers in 40 different countries. Levi’s has also joined other industry initiatives to conduct fire and building safety training programs.
“You see a lot of issues coming up in places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, such as fair wages and fair treatment of workers,” said Tanjila Islam, chief executive officer of TigerTrade. “That’s something that big brands and retailers that are already sourcing from those countries are very much aware of, and they are really keeping their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening because it can affect whether they can keep working with those factories or not, or even in that country. You see countries that are still developing their garment industries, like Bangladesh and Cambodia, that are quite competitive in terms of price, but due to labor issues and infrastructure problems, it keeps them on the margins of the true power players of the world.”
Von Haden of Timberland said, “China has developed so much over the years on environmental, labor and health and safety issues. But production is shifting to new developing countries, and the new Chinas are Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and other surrounding countries where we are starting over again with training, education and awareness.”
While fire prevention and safety has been in the forefront of the news recently, problems with child labor also continue in the global apparel industry. In Cambodia, Kobori said there have been some new reports of the use of underage workers in apparel factories and Levi’s is working with the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia Program to help address the problem.
“I was [in Cambodia] two weeks ago, and we are certainly working with [the ILO] on this issue and working with our compliance teams and suppliers to make sure they understand how to detect underage workers in the recruitment and hiring process,” Kobori added.
Even as fashion companies review their existing CSR programs in the wake of the Pakistan fire, many are embarking on new projects to expand their reach beyond the factory walls, which has been the primary focus for the past 20 years, and will remain a top focus. Companies are also making major inroads into sustainable manufacturing and reducing factories’ impact on the environment.
Levi’s released a white paper in April on one initiative, titled generally “Improving Workers’ Well-Being,” which is an effort to help meet workers’ needs in their personal lives, such as improving health care, vocational training, providing clean water, or establishing financial services and banking to help them with their paychecks.
Levi’s is working with sustainability groups such as Ceres and Business for Social Responsibility to develop the plan and has also convened industry stakeholders, other brands and nongovernmental organizations in the past year to discuss how they can collaborate on improving workers’ lives outside of the factory.
The brand launched a pilot project in five countries — Cambodia, Egypt, Haiti, Bangladesh and Pakistan — in conjunction with local NGOs, where it conducted interviews with workers about their needs. The next step is to share the results with other companies and invite them to join the effort.
“We want to be more of a value add for factories as opposed to the compliance police,” said Von Haden of Timberland, which has worked with Levi’s on the program. “We can work with factories and workers and help them run a better business, have a much higher workforce retention rate and less strikes if they trust us.”
Sustainability, another pillar of CSR programs, is also expanding.
Kobori said the company is also involved in a multistakeholder program known as the Better Cotton Initiative that is a holistic approach to making cotton more sustainable and incorporates other brands such as Nike, Adidas, Marks & Spencer and H&M, as well as 100,000 cotton farmers around the world.
Amy Hall, director of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher Inc., speaking at this month’s WWD Global Sourcing Forum, said the company’s motto, “Business as a Movement,” encompasses all aspects of the brand, from fiber choices to environmental and human rights issues to postconsumer product care.
“We want to have a positive affect on people’s lives and bring about social change,” Hall said.
Hall noted that Eileen Fisher began a process a couple of years ago that resulted in its silk factory in China becoming Bluesign certified, the first facility of its kind to do so. The Bluesign standard is based on five principles of sustainability: resource productivity, consumer safety, air emission, water emission and occupational health and safety.
The factory was able to cut chemical usage by 45 percent and water usage by 25 percent. She said the silk-dyeing process now embodies the commitment to create “colors without compromise” using vegetable dyes and other nontoxic materials.
There'll be no rest for those headed to Europe for men's, as Paris just closed the gap with Milan. According to a provisional calendar released by the Chambre Syndicale, Paris Men's Week will now open a day earlier on January 16. See new highlights on the official lineup on WWD.com. #wwdnews #wwdfashion (📷: @kukukuba)
BREAKING: Jonathan Saunders is leaving @DVF. The designer has resigned from his position as chief creative officer of Diane von Furstenberg, the company said in a statement on Friday. At the time of his hire, von Furstenberg said Saunders’ arrival symbolized and facilitated her stepping back from the day-to-day duties that occupy the work of a full-time creative director. The British designer joined DVF in May 2016 and was in charge of all product categories. #wwdnews
For @versace_official’s spring ad campaign, the brand emphasized the archival prints from the spring tribute collection dedicated to the late Gianni Versace. Closing out the show were five of Gianni’s favorite models: Cindy, Naomi, Carla, Helena, and Claudia. Bowing on December 18, the new campaign is yet another tribute to supermodel-dom as the images by Steven Meisel are fronted by @iamnaomicampbell, @cturlington, @gisele and more. #wwdfashion
Four-time Oscar-nominated actress Annette Bening has been waiting 20 years to play Gloria Graham in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," which will be released on December 29. The movie about Graham – a Hollywood star known for her controversial relationship with a younger Englishman named Peter Turner – is based off a memoir Turned wrote. "She felt vulnerable to him, because she loved him, she really did love him. And anyone that we really truly are in love with, we re vulnerable to in a very deep way," said Bening. Read our full interview with the modern icon of an actress on WWD.com. #wwdeye (📷: @ninebagatelles; Styled by @cristinaehrlich)
The crisp white button down: a staple that can be dressed up or down and accessorized throughout the decades. Here, on a Art Basel-goer in 2017 on the left and on the iconic Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” in 1953 on the right. #tbt #wwdfashion (📷: Andrew Morales)
Known for her work with @victoriassecret, 25-year-old model @georgiafowler is raising her profile in Hollywood. Fowler stars in @vincecamuto’s holiday campaign, which launched in partnership with “Pitch Perfect 3.” “Almost every shoot with Vince Camuto, I’ve had to face a fear…It was definitely a challenge. I’m so grateful for it, though. I’ve always wanted to be a pop star, so that was the perfect chance,” Fowler said. Head to WWD.com to read about Fowler’s experience modeling, including at the #VSFashionShow, and her relationship with Nick Jonas. #wwdeye (📷: @jilliansollazzo)
EXCLUSIVE: Huda Kattan just became the first beauty influencer to land a major beauty deal. Kattan's business, @hudabeauty, has received a minority investment from private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners. The brand, which industry sources say is on track to do $200 million in retail sales for 2017, will receive support on product, retail and geographic expansion through the deal. Get all the details on the deal and read @_a_collins' interview with Kattan on WWD.com. Link in bio. (📷: @jgreenery) #wwdbeauty #wwdnews
Peruvian model @juanaburga_official – who is known for walking the runways of @rodarte, @viviennewestwood and @torybuch – is making the move to the big screen with drama “Los Últimos.” The film premiered in Argentina in November and arrives in the U.S. and Europe in 2018. On making the switch from modeling to acting, Burga told WWD: “It’s a completely different thing – a lot of people think it’s similar or try to connect things, especially like getting used to the camera or being looked at all the time or playing these different characrers, but film is a completely different story.” #wwdeye (📷: @jgreenery)
London’s newly opened @designmuseum will look back on the life and work of Azzedine Alaïa in a show that the designer helped to curate before he died of heart failure last month. The retrospective, which Alaïa had worked on with Mark Wilson, chief curator of the @groningermuseum, will look at the impact of his work worldwide. The show, “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier,” will run from May 10 to October 7. Read more about the exhibit on WWD.com #wwdnews #wwdfashion (📷: @zefashioninsider)