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GENEVA – Last week we reported on research by the Worker Rights Consortium which showed that cancelled orders have left garment workers facing chronic food shortages as wages plunge and factories close. Nearly 400 workers were surveyed across 158 garment factories in 9 countries, with respondents reporting they are increasingly unable to obtain adequate food for their families.

77 per cent of garment workers said they or a member of their household have gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic. 80 per cent of the respondents with dependent children said they are now forced to skip meals or reduce the amount or quality of food they eat in order to feed their children. And 75 per cent of workers said they have borrowed money or accumulated debt in order to buy food since the beginning of the pandemic.

We have had three decades of brand CSR initiatives yet, still, workers in garment supply chains are going without food. Such initiatives are failing in the most basic of tasks. How can this be?

We have all known since the beginning of the year that 2020 was going to be a bumpy ride for the whole fashion industry value chain, and we accept that brands have had a challenging time. Despite this, many brands have continued to report profits, albeit on the back of reduced revenues. This shows the enormous resilience of our industry. It also shows this is a cash-rich industry, with at any time the major fast fashion brands having millions in reserve to fall back on.

It also shows another thing: our industry is remarkably savvy. Fast fashion brands have been brilliant at marketing throughout this year, switching lines to focus on leisurewear and indoor clothing as more people stay at home. They have done whatever it took to remain more profitable, showing creativity and ingenuity in abundance along the way.

So what are they doing to help the workers who make their clothing? If brands can be so smart at remaining profitable during the biggest economic shock for a generation, why can’t they ensure the people who produce their products have enough money to properly feed themselves?

In April this year, just as the global pandemic began to lead to country-wide lockdowns, the ILO launched a ‘Call to Action’ for the global garment industry. The goal, they said, was “to catalyse action from across the global garment industry to support manufacturers to survive the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and to protect garment workers’ income, health and employment.” They also said the action “calls for work on sustainable systems of social protection for a more just and resilient garment industry.”

Fashion brands were offered the chance to ‘endorse’ the initiative, although it’s far from clear what endorsing it actually meant. Did it mean putting money in? After all, we all know that the thing supply chains need more than anything right now is hard cash. According to the ILO, organisations endorsing its statement would “commit to work with governments and financial institutions to mobilise sufficient funding to enable manufacturers to ensure business continuity including payment of wages, as well as income-support and job-retention schemes to address the impact of the crisis.”

Naturally, virtually every big major brand signed up to endorse the ILO’s call, including H&M, Primark, C&A, Bestseller, Inditex and Marks & Spencer. What never sat right at that time was that several of the brands signing the call to action had been cancelling large orders during the early stages of the pandemic and refusing to pay for them, even when such orders were work in production or complete.

This meant that, on the one hand, brands were signing up to initiatives supposedly backing more support for their supply chains, while on the other they were engaging in business practices that were doing great harm to suppliers (and garment workers).

We did point out this inconsistency to the ILO at the time but they did not seem to see it as a big deal.

On to now, and this week we asked the ILO for an update on its Call to Action. Several PR people from the ILO took four days to provide an answer on this and, even then, they just referred us to an old document on their website.

How much have brands put into this, we asked? You’ll have to ask them that the ILO told us. But surely you must know, we countered … to which we received no response.

The Call to Action is not the only brand initiative we have seen this year. Throughout 2020, we have heard talk of ‘bouncing back better’ from brands and their various industry associations.

The SAC led the creation of a new body called Fashion Conveners. The marketing for this initiative said: “Spurred by the vulnerabilities the global pandemic brought forward, the group recognises the urgency to accelerate the transformational changes needed to reduce the environmental and social impacts across fashion.”

We have heard nothing of it since its launch. What about the workers the WRC talked about who are having to skip meals? What will the Fashion Conveners do to help them?

The other usual suspects have also been particularly vocal during the coronavirus pandemic.

Global Fashion Agenda told us all that, “the time for a reset has arrived. The worldwide pandemic is forcing fashion – a resource-intensive industry and a powerful engine for global growth and job creation – to undergo a dramatic transformation that is playing out in real time day by day, hour by hour,”

It added: “When our industry begins to recover, we must be ambitious in rebuilding a better new normal.”

GFA and co have been saying this kind of thing all year. They seem to like that phrase: new normal. Yet our industry has started to recover and the new normal, from what we can see, seems to be remarkably similar to the old normal.

It’s the same old story of suppliers complaining that, once again, brands are cancelling orders and demanding huge discounts as some countries begin second lockdowns. It’s one of garment workers going without, it’s one where we hear of claims of union bashing at the factories of major brands. It is one where brands like Arcadia can go bust and leave suppliers in the lurch, with absolutely no come back.

Amid all this, still the initiatives continue. These initiatives are not helping anybody, except brands for which they provide cheap PR. Our industry either does not seem to be learning from the mistakes of the past or it simply does not care.

This is industry where people in the west can be found queuing through the night to await the opening of a fast fashion store, as was the case with Primark, while many of the workers who produced clothing for that brand are skipping meals and going without to make ends meet.

If workers in garment supply chains are still going hungry in 2020, there is no cause for any celebration in our industry. Brand initiatives which provide PR that is scarcely warranted should be consigned to the waste bin where they belong.

Global Fashion Agenda talks of a new normal. We agree on that, but unlike them, we don’t agree that brands should get to dictate the terms of this new normal. If brands are allowed to frame the conversation we will just get more of the same, more greenwash and bending of the truth.

The new normal for us would see brands – as a priority – acknowledging that CSR programmes are failing one of their most basic tasks – protecting supply chain workers. A different approach is badly needed, and if that means bringing in independent regulation or governments stepping into this space, so be it.

The broader issue here is one of greenwash – a disease in our industry which we all have a responsibility to tackle. Greenwash allows brands to tell the world all in the garden is rosy at a time when garment workers can’t even afford to feed themselves properly. It’s endemic in our industry, and until it is properly tackled, absolutely nothing will change – and the race to the bottom will continue.


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