NEW YORK — With a backdrop of a string of tragic factory fires in Asia in recent months and companies taking harder looks at their corporate social responsibility plans to avoid future catastrophes while improving their overall sustainability strategies, Textile Exchange’s annual workshop focused directly on those issues.

This story first appeared in the April 2, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Christine Briscoe, training and development manager for the Americas at the Fair Labor Association, illustrated the fire safety issue by showing the audience a photo of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where 112 years ago last week, 146 factory workers perished after a fire broke out in the building where there were blocked fire exits, fabric and lint strewn on floors and fire truck ladders that were several floors short of being able to reach the trapped people. She noted that it brought about new workplace laws and regulations.

She then showed a photo of the burned-down Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan, where 300 workers perished in a fire in September, and asked rhetorically, “Has anything changed?”

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“One of the keys for CSR [corporate social responsibility] programs is that companies are often operating in countries and areas where maybe local laws are not enforced, so that’s where the need for company standards or international standards or laws become important,” Briscoe told the confab at Parsons the New School for Design on Seventh Avenue on March 19. “Ideally, CSR should be integrated throughout a company and not just be the responsibility of one person, who is often focused on legal standards and making sure laws aren’t violated, and not on the overall betterment of the workplace or the community at large.”

FLA, which grew out of the Apparel Industry Partnership convened in 1996 by President Clinton in the wake of a series of sweatshop scandals in the U.S., has been focused on labor and workplace issues but is now putting more emphasis on the environment as well, Briscoe noted.

“An overall, broader approach to CSR is increasingly what consumers and clients are demanding,” she said. “Companies can decrease risks and costs, and differentiate their brands, by taking on CSR in a proactive manner.”

In reaction to the tragic factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh, FLA put together a list of 39 “Foundational Fire Safety Competencies,” from developing policies and procedures and risk-assessment planning to establishing a workplace fire-response team, and inspection and preparedness procedures.

“We’re asking companies to take ownership of compliance and move away from the standard checklist audit — we’ve been doing this for almost 20 years and things like these fires are still occurring — and really look at long-lasting solutions to the problems, such as a more comprehensive model looking at each of the employment functions,” Briscoe said. “What we are calling assessors are going into the factories now and looking for gaps in management systems and the employee life cycle.”

RELATED STORY: After the Pakistan Fire, Advancing the CSR Agenda >>

Anne Gillespie, director of industry engagement at Textile Exchange, said a broader approach to sustainability is also needed today. She said even if companies take all the right steps themselves to make sure products are properly manufactured, certified and labeled, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee authenticity.

“Unless there is proper integrity in the supply chain, it may not make a difference,” Gillespie said. “That’s the backbone of creating a sustainable textile industry. As the so-called green market grows, there’s a lot of room for companies to cheat or make false claims. There is a lot of inconsistent use of terms that leads to consumer confusion and mistrust. The terms green and sustainable are losing their relevance. The bottom line is that stakeholders expect transparency.”

She cited the continued use of bamboo as an ingredient on content labels by some companies, even though the Federal Trade Commission said it could not be used because when bamboo is processed into a fabric, it becomes a rayon.

“Integrity is only as strong as your weakest link in the supply chain,” Gillespie added.

She said ways to achieve this are through proper verification. This begins at the “first-party” level, such as Australian wool farmers pledging not to use mulesing on sheep. Second-party verification comes from brands using the correct certifications and labeling in areas such as organic cotton. The third and “ultimate verification” level, she said, is independent inspections, citing organizations such as Control Union, which brings the “highest level” of assurance, along with certificates from independent qualified organizations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, and by obtaining a “transaction certificate” through organizations like Textile Exchange that verify a product through every step of the supply chain.

“To become an integrity star, read and follow the content claims standard from Textile Exchange,” she said. “Make a commitment to get your product certified, at least to a base level.”