Long before coronavirus, labor rights organizations, environmentalists and consumer groups were airing the dirty laundry of fashion brands to varying results.
This time, pressure tactics are gaining greater urgency as the pandemic gives new insights into the intricacies of global supply chains and consumers are increasingly glued to their phones amid stay-at-home orders.
Seven years ago, the Rana Plaza disaster was a catalyst for founding organizations like Fashion Revolution or San Francisco-based social justice nonprofit Remake, which formed a few years later.
And in the fallout of the pandemic, which could threaten upward of 25 million jobs and has already crippled the apparel supply chain, not to mention retailers worldwide, these organizations and others like it — such as the Worker Rights Consortium, Asia Floor Wage Alliance and the Garment Worker Center — are fighting an ongoing battle on behalf of frontline garment workers.
Remake started the #PayUp campaign last week, surpassing its original goal of 1,500 signatures, to urge brands like C&A, Primark, Gap, H&M and others to pay garment factories for contractually owed canceled or delayed orders. Much of the petition’s focus is on Bangladesh, as the country has ample data to convey the impact to its economy of the crisis, with 80 percent of its exports attributable to garment manufacturing.
Already the country had counted nearly $3 billion in damages to the millions working in the apparel industry, many of whom are women. And the situation isn’t unlike that in Myanmar or Cambodia.
Since the petition began, H&M, Target, Marks & Spencer, Zara, French retailer Kiabi and PVH Corp. all made public commitments to pay for their in-production orders, but Remake declines to remove any brands from its list until the money changes hands.
A tall order as most retailers and apparel vendors in the West are in survival mode, deciding which bills will be paid first.
WWD spoke with Ayesha Barenblat, the founder and chief executive officer of Remake, as well as some of the brands to sort through any allegations while analyzing pressure tactics in the swift era of accountability and sustainability.
“Without accountability, I’ve found the private sector quickly walks back as far as labor rights and human rights as soon as it becomes unprofitable,” claimed Barenblat, who counts 18 years in her field of expertise, including work at the United Nations and in the aftermath of Rana Plaza. While stern in her mission of vocalizing for “the black and brown women that have supported this industry,” she acknowledges that for everyone involved it’s, unfortunately, a “liquidity crunch.”
As of Monday, H&M, Kiabi and VF Corp. have all begun making payments to suppliers, as updated on Remake’s public petition.
“That pressure is working,” she added. Typical payment terms may be net 30, 60 or 90 days. And that’s not to say the local governments and labor groups have not played an important role.
A few days ago, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said it would support the millions of ready-made garments workers who lost work because of cancellations and delays of export orders. But the aid and assurance of employment are only expected for the next two months.
This follows a stimulus package from Bangladesh’s government worth $590 million to the garment industry, a jump compared to the $40 million received in 2013 after Rana Plaza.
Except this time around, it’s not just the immediate safety of garment workers on the line, but what the factories and workers view as the entire ready-made goods industry. Barenblat and her network of activists stress the aid by the government is “not even a month worth of wages for workers.”
Although they may be doing something, saying nothing may be worse for brands. In some instances, silence is the route taken by brands and retailers — even if it means a down ranking or public roast by an advocacy group. And as Barenblat said, many manufacturers keep quiet about unpaid orders as they don’t want to “bite the hand that feeds you.”
Petitions are a tactic for one advocacy group, while scorecards or directed e-mails may be the choice of another.
While in support of efforts seen, Fashion Revolution believes brands may be more inclined to act if e-mails come directly from devoted customers, referencing a recent campaign.
When environmental group Stand.Earth’s “filthy fashion scorecard” ranking brand’s climate commitments came out in October, brands inevitably placed lower due to a lack of publicly available or given data, which is what most groups rely on in tandem with their own grassroots source networks that include brands, manufacturers and suppliers. Even Patagonia voided participation.
Regarding unpaid orders, Barenblat said the “silence has been deafening” from brands like Gap, C&A and American Eagle, even in spite of what she calls “noise” in making personal protective equipment.
WWD reached out for comment about Remake’s allegations but only Gap responded by press time.
With the recent news of canceled orders following the closing of stores across North America and Europe, Gap said it would work “closely with our long-standing suppliers to best assess how we can work together through this crisis,” reiterating its decision-making would focus on employees, customers and partners as well as the long-term health of its business.
Industry sources confirmed those brands did cancel a number of orders for spring and summer, but some of the companies — like American Eagle Outfitters — are quietly creating alternatives. By selling finished goods to wholesalers or working alongside factories to pay for future liabilities as per original payment terms, vendors are not hung out to dry.
“We’re making people very uncomfortable,” claimed Barenblat, not rejecting the hyperbolic tone that can come with advocacy.
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