The past two years have been troubling ones for the global apparel trade. There was the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh last April 24, the continuing labour unrest in nearby Cambodia, factory fires in Pakistan and a renewed focus on child labour in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest. All these incidents added to the human toll of an industry with an often poor human rights record.
There was a sense directly after the Rana Plaza collapse that this tragedy would be the event that finally galvanized the industry to action across a host of issues. Industry activists, leadership brands and organized labour leaders had been working for years across the developing world—where globalization has pushed most labour-intensive textile and apparel production—to change industry practices. For the most part, pre-Rana Plaza, you would hardly have known it here in Canada. Sadly, we still have some catching up to do.
Both the European-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the U.S. Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety have made significant advances toward addressing issues of building integrity and fire safety systems in that country. Intense international pressure at the government and company board level either shocked or shamed most brands into action. As a result, safer work conditions are becoming more of a reality for the nearly five million garment-industry workers in Bangladesh.
But while a growing number of European and American companies have begun effective programs—tackling everything from sustainable cotton production and water management to living wages and the reduction of hazardous chemicals—their Canadian peers have seemed slow to follow suit.
European retailers are outpacing our own. Swedish fast-fashion leader H&M is running on-the-ground collaborations with the World Wildlife Fund, the Better Cotton Initiative, the Fair Wage Network and the Fair Labor Association to improve its core metrics tied to eliminating hazardous chemicals, reducing water usage, increasing sustainable cotton uptake, improving worker wages and their working conditions as detailed in their latest Conscious Actions Sustainability Report for 2013. CEO Karl-Johan Persson has made responsible supply chain practices core to the brand’s business strategy, one which has propelled H&M into a clear leadership position, engaging with local governments and industry in pushing for substantive change. This goes far beyond a paper code of conduct, philanthropic hand-outs or the social audit fatigue which has gripped the industry over the past decade.
Major Canadian brands making these levels of commitments to the people and communities who make their goods are few and far between. And with growing consumer awareness around the social and environmental costs of cheap fashions, they may be losing customers because of it.
We do have a few leaders in this country. Lululemon, which employs Partner Sustainability teams and has a smaller vendor factory base, is one. Mountain Equipment Co-op, became the first Canadian retailer to openly publish their factory list in 2008. Both come to mind as two retailers going beyond minimal risk-management practices with a commitment to supply chain visibility. No doubt there are others, but most have remained content to fly below the radar, knowing that an uninformed public is unlikely to ask difficult questions. Industry insiders are generally reluctant to rock the boat, and so compliance staff often decline to raise their voices.
Industry and civil groups in both Europe and America have proven more engaged in their approach to labour, environmental and human rights concerns in the textile and apparel industries. This has much to do with a historically large and active organized labour voice, especially in textile-producing states, and a more combative media in both markets.
The Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production standard (WRAP) both grew out of U.S. market reactions to labour abuses in Central America during the 1990s, while the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (SEDEX) and Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) worked to address early European concerns with the fair treatment of workers across North Africa, India and Bangladesh. As global trade expanded to include China and other developing regions, these programmes have adapted to include them as well. Environmental issues followed closely.
To date, the Canadian retailing industry and our civil society organizations have not come up with anything remotely similar to these initiatives. Some brands do opt to participate in U.S. and European programmes but to date these would seem to be the exception, not the norm. At the legislative level, governments have been loath to put extra-territorial human and labour rights into law for Canadian firms operating overseas—be it in mining or manufacturing. Legal ethics, it seems, are geographic in nature: someone else’s problem, out of sight and far away.
Toronto based Fashion Takes Action and The Maquila Solidarity Network are among the few Canadian industry voices attempting to address environmental, labour and women’s rights concerns while the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) has drawn attention to Fair Trade issues and Uzbekistan’s continued use of child labour in its annual cotton harvest.
Matt Kellway, the federal NDP Member of Parliament for Beaches-East York will be adding to Canadian efforts in Bangladesh as he accompanies media and labour reps from UNIFOR, CUPE, PSAC, the UFCW and USW there later this month. Canadian Brad Loewen is serving as Chief Safety Inspector with the Accord while Heather Cruden, Canada’s High Commissioner in Bangladesh, has recently been named to the Alliance’s board of advisors. But here again—with efforts primarily focused on issues of building integrity and fire safety systems—a longer list of social, labour and environmental issues remains on the back burner. Excessive working hours, improper pay for hours worked and a failure to provide mandated benefits have proven among the more difficult industry findings to eradicate.
Putting them front and centre wherever offshore production might be found will take the collaborative, conscious effort of Canadians from all sectors; government, brands, consumers and civil society. Our country’s historic reputation for fair play and decency should encourage the apparel industry at home and abroad to take bolder steps to improve working conditions, labour rights and environmental practices. As we approach the anniversary of Rana Plaza, it is time to move beyond rhetoric and into action.
Michael Lavergne is an 18-year apparel industry professional. He has worked globally with Hanes, Wal-Mart, Bureau Veritas and Shoppers Drug Mart, most recently serving as a senior director with Joe Fresh.