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OPINION – The apparel industry is over-flowing with brand-led, voluntary initiatives. And, as we all know, hardly any of them work (and those that do have minimum impact). We can all debate the reasons why this is the case, although the obvious, over-riding one is that such initiatives are ultimately dependent on the goodwill of brands.

There is an inherent conflict here: on the one hand, brands are there to maximise profits, and are under pressure from markets do so. This pressure is huge – even a slight decline in profits leads to huge market scrutiny and days and days of negative publicity.

On the other hand, brands are being asked to do the right thing, often with nothing or little in return from a business perspective. It’s little wonder that work on sustainability is often entered into in a half-hearted way, one designed to minimise financial output and which always – always – demands some kind of PR pay-off to justify the ROI.

Thus voluntary initiatives or pacts are ideal. They offer free and easy PR, they are rarely properly monitored, they lack independence and there is literally no downside to signing up given that the downsides of the initiative not hitting its targets are pretty much non-existent.

Voluntary initiatives – or industry ‘pacts’ – will always be doomed to failure, then, as endless reports, studies and research exercises have demonstrated over the years.

While having this conversation, we also need to put to bed the lie that sustainability pays. For sure, there is a quick ROI on some supply chain investments (eg water and energy saving technologies at mills), yet in most cases, sustainability is a financial outlay with doesn’t pay for itself. Often, it simply costs more to do the right thing, to operate responsibly. Put another way, the cheap clothing we wear comes at a price: degradation to the environment, poverty pay and mistreatment for garment workers.

Keep all of this in mind when considering that there is one, huge initiative which has created positive, lasting change in the garment industry. This initiative is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The Accord was signed in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 which killed 1,133 workers and injured thousands more. The Accord was a legally-binding agreement between global brands & retailers and unions – note the emphasis on that phase, ‘legally-binding.’

This initiative has almost certainly saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives while making workplaces safer for garment workers. Put yourselves in the shoes of a garment worker going to work after Rana Plaza, wondering whether you might be entering a death-trap. One cannot put a price on the peace of mind the Accord has helped bring about for millions of garment workers.

The Accord has also provided international market confidence for brands and retailers operating in the Bangladesh garment industry (which some seriously considered exiting following Rana Plaza).

What made the Accord so effective and how did it achieve such buy-in?

In terms of structure, the Accord was governed by a Steering Committee with equal representation of the signatory companies and trade unions and a neutral chair provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

It oversaw an independent safety inspection and remediation programme across Bangladesh’s huge RMG industry. Thousands of factories were inspected and the process is still ongoing, even though the Accord has now been transitioned to a local unit in Dhaka (it’s transition to the Bangladesh authorities has weakened its structure, some claim, as the new Accord lacks effective union input – but that’s another story).

The Accord was transparent. There was full disclosure of inspection reports and corrective action plans, all available to view on the Accord website.

The Bangladesh Accord basically did exactly what it said on the tin. I’ve yet to hear anybody suggest anything other than that it has been an unparalleled success (except factories which have been forced to invest in safety upgrades).

More than anything, the Bangladesh Accord has shown what is possible when there is a genuine will to bring about change; when procedures and processes are implemented which leave no wiggle room, no opportunities for excuses from brands and retailers.

Those who work in sustainability often talk about the challenge of making progress, of obstacles in the road, of the difficulty of getting buy-in, of the complexities of supply chains and all manner of other issues.

They use grand language about the need for “systemic change” and, at times, do make this whole issue sound incredibly complicated. Which, in some ways it is.

And yet, here we have a ready-made structure which we know works and has impact. A structure which we knew, when put to the test, proved it had teeth and effective remedy, examples of which can be seen here and here

The principles which underpin the Bangladesh Accord – legally-binding, complete accountability, radical transparency, effective remedy – could quite easily be applied to other pressing issues in our industry.

Wages for garment workers and brand purchasing practices are two areas where the industry has collectively been banging its head against a brick wall for two decades. So why not apply the principles of the Accord in these two areas?

On wages and purchasing practices, we have seen plenty of voluntary initiatives in recent times but who, hand on heart, can say they have made one iota of difference?  Brands must surely be aware of this and yet, seemingly in blissful ignorance of Einstein’s definition of insanity, they continue to sign up to vague, non-binding agreements or pacts on such issues.

The generous take on this is that brands sign these agreements in good faith and live in hope that, at some stage, one of them will have some traction.

The less palatable notion is that such initiatives offer a chance for brands to kick these issues down the road for a little longer – offering the pretence of action on critical issues when the reality is they are signing up to yet another industry talking shop (which brands know, deep down, won’t “turn the needle” on sustainability issues, to use a favourite industry phrase).

The Accord model offers a blueprint for a better industry. The question is, why is an industry that proports to be serious about sustainability issues not willing to heed its lessons?

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