Research published this week links ethical trading in Indian fashion supply chains to increased resilience.
The study, funded and published by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), is a result of research carried out by the University of Leeds and Goa Institute of Management into the management of modern slavery risks in Indian fashion supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A number of in-depth interviews, or 67 in all, underpinned the research. Specifically, they included 41 suppliers in India, 15 U.K. fashion brands, as well as 11 interviews with local and international NGOs, press and industry associations. The data was compared to the organization’s past research in 2017 and 2018.
Conditions like abuse of vulnerability, restriction of movement, debt bondage and excessive overtime were amplified amid the pandemic. The research “strongly suggested” these conditions lead to a “higher” risk of modern slavery.
With the majority of employees in the Indian textile industry being migrant workers, the precarious situation induced by the pandemic (furloughs and unemployment) took a dramatic toll on worker livelihoods. Suppliers also engaged in higher rates of unauthorized subcontracting to meet production commitments amid canceled or delayed orders. Increased risk to human trafficking (amid layoffs), child labor, labor bondage or modern slavery and unsafe working conditions were noted in the report. One NGO interviewee called the pandemic the “worst human rights crisis of a lifetime.”
But, importantly, ethical actions resulted in improved resilience amid all the desperation.
The report emphasized the pandemic’s difficulties as a “joint experience,” meaning where retailers or brands suffered, manufacturers did as well, if not more so. In that same light, shared “empathy” and “compassion” allowed businesses to better weather the shocks together and understand upstream vulnerabilities.
One factor of this was establishing “open and trusted communication channels with suppliers” and being able to adapt to local disturbances.
“This feeling of a joint experience that differentiated the pandemic from previous global shocks, and the development of mutual understanding of how the pandemic was impacting brands and suppliers created a deeper level of empathy,” the researchers noted.
Dr. Mark Sumner, a fashion sustainability lecturer at the University of Leeds, added this leadership may not be innate but can be built into programs. “Many ethical trading teams will engage in internal training of buyers, designers and merchandisers, including senior management as well, on responsible — or fair-buying practices. This training usually includes a specific focus on understanding the impact between commercial demands (prices, lead time, order quantities) on suppliers’ ability to meet ethical standards for workers’ rights and working conditions. For some brands, this type of training has become mandatory for all employees.”
In lieu of proper enforcement mechanisms, or the alleged failings in legislation like the U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act, who or what is to promote ethical trading practices industry-wide?
“There are very few direct enforcement mechanisms to promote ethical and responsible business behavior,” shared Sumner. “However, some brands have focused on this approach to their business practice. In some cases, this is driven by an intrinsic moral motivation of the brand, its employees or its owners. Others have responded to pressure from their stakeholders to be more ethical, some have seen ‘ethical’ business as a competitive advantage. Finally, some brands have seen the rest of their competitors shifting to more ethical practices and are trying to catch up with them.”
He mentioned the U.K. Textiles 2030, Ethical Trading Initiative, and more globally the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals program, as baselines.
Peer researcher Alex Balch, who is the director of research at the Modern Slavery PEC, added that “the fact that it’s the right thing to do” should be enough of a motivator.