MEXICO CITY — Mexico has launched efforts to boost fashion manufacturing transparency and sustainability just as new reports slammed the industry and the government by alleging ongoing labor and environmental abuses.

At a recent event, U.K.-based non-profit Fashion Revolution revealed plans to roll out its Fashion Transparency Index Mexico 2020 to encourage up to 20 brands and retailers to report their impact on labor and the environment. The event gathered top retail and apparel associations Antad and Canaive, which lent their support to the initiative.

Just before the the launch, however, the Human Rights Commission of Tehuacan, a major maquila hub in Puebla State south of Mexico City, singled out local denim maker Hera for violating workers’ rights and worsening pollution in their laundry and stone-washing facilities.

“I have received many claims and have talked to Hera Apparel’s sewers…,” the organization’s leader Martin Barrios said in a Facebook statement. “These executives are exploiting aquifers and contaminating the environment.”

Barrios, who claims the Tehuacan textiles company sources clothing for big global brands, also alleged that Hera does not share profits with workers and often changes its name to flout taxes and social security contributions. “They have called themselves Lean Operations, Texting Tex, Elemental Denim…,” Barrios continued. “When they change their name, their contributions with Infonavit are wiped out.”

Hera did not respond to requests for comment.

Barrios is not alone in accusing the industry, Latin America’s second-largest, of ignoring workers’ rights through so-called sindicatos charros or corrupt trades unions that cater to big businesses, often preventing workers from unionizing.

Despite the U.S.’ demands that Mexico improve labor conditions and wages as part of the USMCA treaty, the revised version of NAFTA, an AFL-CIO local insider said sewers’ pay is unlikely to rise more than 5 percent — well below the government’s new 20 percent minimum wage hike, which is mainly expected to benefit auto workers.

Mexico City is making progress in ensuring maquila owners meet social security laws but faces big challenges to streamline conditions and workers’ freedom of association rights, said the source.

“Mexican factories have made mutually beneficial contracts with sindicatos charros for years to keep workers down and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon,” the source claimed.

Fashion Revolution’s founder and director Carry Somers hopes her index, which she also launched in Brazil two years ago, will help improve life for workers while protecting the climate. She said the Brazilian edition, which features 30 firms including local department stores Renner and Riachuelo, as well as C&A, which sponsors the survey, has yielded positive results.

“We know that globally there is a lack of transparency in the fashion industry and particularly in Mexico, we know the industry remains without a lot of transparency,” she said. “We decided to do the index in Mexico because in order to improve labor conditions and environmental impact, brands need to publish more information.”

The survey, which will likely include Mexico’s top department stores Liverpool, Palacio de Hierro, Sears de Mexico and Saks’ Fifth Avenue, among others, should help human rights organizations and trades unions hold them and other large clothing brands accountable for how their actions impact society.

Executives at Sears expressed interest in participating.

“They have not formally invited us but it sounds interesting for Sears, Sanborns and Saks Fifth Avenue Mexico” operating under Mexican retail and industrial holding Grupo Carso, said Edgar Smolensky, chief marketing officer and chief executive officer of Sears and Saks, respectively. He said Sears is working on a new sustainable fashion collection and has begun screening global brands for future product including such elements. A Sears buyer added the company is getting “more and more calls to ask how the brands it sells are sustainable,” and with Mexico now banning shopping bags, “we are already seeing some [environmental] gains.”

Fashion Revolution Mexico’s coordinator Efrain Martinez said the team will select the index’s participants by late February. “We are going to look at their market share and number of stores, as well as where they are located,” said Martinez. “We will approach them to let them know we want to include them in the index and that this can benefit their corporate social responsibility.”

Martinez agreed that Mexico’s textiles and apparel industry continues to incur labor violations and engage in environmentally damaging production, making the index a valuable tool to combat this.

“There aren’t enough regulations to force manufacturers to make an efficient use of resources,” said Martinez. “Some companies in the Puebla and Veracruz-Orizaba area have made some technological investments (such as oxygen-based finishing to save water or in water-recycling facilities) but not enough so as long as production increases,” emissions will continue to rise.

Fashion Revolution’s global index, launched four years ago, tracks 250 firms which have seen market-share gains by releasing information about their supply chain practices, with significant gains made in product traceability, according to Somers.

“When we look at the global index we see the brands included in the past three years have improved their [share price] growth by 9 percent,” Somers said. “Investors are demanding greater transparency while consumers are increasingly savvy; they want to know where their clothes come from.

“Globally, 38 percent of brands now share information about where their clothes are cut and sewn compared to 12 percent three years ago so we know the index has contributed to the publishing of a factory list,” Somers claimed. “Eighteen percent of brands are also publishing processing facilities such as tanneries or where our clothes are woven, dyed and spun. Now we have 10 brands publishing their raw material suppliers from one last year and none the previous year.”

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