WASHINGTON — The fashion industry has been providing input to the U.S. government for a proposed National Action Plan to promote responsible and transparent business conduct in supply chains abroad, which could have major implications for workers and companies sourcing around the globe.
President Obama revealed his commitment to develop a National Action Plan in September and the government has quietly been developing it for several months, taking input from a wide range of stakeholders, including apparel and textile industry executives, at four consultation meetings.
Some experts are calling the NAP an “unprecedented” commitment by the U.S. to create what is expected to be a roadmap for American companies to share best practices in sourcing and report and address human rights, labor abuses and corruption issues.
The U.S. business community is pressing for the plan to focus on information-sharing and best practices, as opposed to a regulatory scheme. But nongovernmental organizations are calling for more accountability, transparency and complaint and remedy mechanisms for workers, with the aim of seeing the NAP’s commitments eventually leading to regulations in those areas.
The State Department recently said the NAP will “address ways in which the U.S. government can promote, encourage and enforce established norms of responsible business conduct with respect to human rights, labor rights, anti-corruption and transparency, and more.”
“In doing so, the National Action Plan will help set clear, consistent and predictable expectations for U.S. firms in their global operations; facilitate internal U.S. government communication and coordination; strengthen the trust and communication among stakeholders; identify [U.S. government] commitments to assist in creating a rights-respecting enabling environment for businesses operating abroad and further promote responsible investment and responsible business conduct.”
The U.S. is said to be developing a draft plan that is expected to be released this summer.
Companies that participated in the April meeting and provided input include Wal-Mart, Walt Disney Co., Procter & Gamble, L.L. Bean, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and U.S. Fashion Industry Association, according to an attendance list.
The development of the U.S. plan comes at a time when the global fashion industry has been dealing with the fallout of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013 that claimed the lives of an estimated 1,135 people and injured another 2,515.
The tragedy has been a key topic of conversation at the four “consultation” meetings with the government, according to Sara Blackwell, an international human rights lawyer who is a legal and policy associate at the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, a coalition of NGOs, labor and environmental groups dedicated to upholding human rights.
“Everyone agrees that we need to push for better supply chain due diligence because in our globalized world, supply chains are becoming more complex and we need to push for either regulatory or incentive schemes to get companies to better understand their supply chains,” Blackwell said. “That is definitely something we hope is addressed in the NAP and it came up a lot in the consultations.”
Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the AAFA, said the association has been working with the State Department, Department of Labor and others in the government to educate them about the industry’s supply chains and the lessons it has gained from trying to improve responsible business conduct over the past 20 years.
“With Rana Plaza, the Alliance and Accord initiatives were an urgent response to a horrible tragedy,” Herman said. “We are taking our learning from the experience to make sure there are no further tragedies. It showed companies could work together and by working together they could have a much bigger effect in certain situations than in working alone.
“Hopefully, with the U.S. government taking a leadership role, they will combine all of the learning from various industries into best practices that our industries can then use to continue to improve our responsible business conduct and move to the next level,” Herman added. “That is what we hope to get out of this process.”
Julia Hughes, president of the USFIA, said, “Most U.S. companies already have codes of conduct, guidelines for responsible sourcing, transparency and supply-chain tracking, but they don’t necessarily do it in an organized way. There is definitely a desire to look at best practices and shared learning — what works and what doesn’t work in different parts of the world. There is a whole section of the U.S. bureaucracy that is focused on this because the president announced it last year.
“We are very supportive of this. We think for apparel brands and retailers, we have been at the forefront of developing exactly the kinds of responsible business practices around the world, but we want to know the details about how this is moving forward,” Hughes added. “It doesn’t sound like this is going to be punitive or an imposition of standards on anyone. I think it is much more of a carrot approach than a stick, but we don’t know that yet.”