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Social Compliance: Responsibility versus Accountability

By: Gerwin Leppink
Oct 19

There is increasing global awareness that apparel can come at a high price, regardless of the stated value on the price ticket. The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 brought global attention to the perils which can be associated with the manufacture of apparel.

Especially in this era which has become inundated with trade wars, the pressure to keep costs down has never been higher. These conditions often lend themselves to less than ethical production methods where worker protections are secondary to the bottom line. On the other hand, there are multiple stakeholders including (but not limited to) NGO’s, consumer organizations, socially responsible investors, and various parties within the governments of the European Union and the United States which have in fact been vocal about their desire to improve social responsibility throughout supply chains. 

In Europe, governments have started taking the lead using multi-stakeholder initiatives that can address supply chain risks within the apparel business. For example, in 2014, the German government joined forces with its domestic textile industry and trade unions to form the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. In 2016, the government in the Netherlands, along with a coalition of industry organizations, trade unions, and civil society organizations unveiled the Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textiles, a comprehensive agreement outlining responsible business conduct in the garment and textile sector.

Many European apparel lead firms have adopted continuous improvement approaches regarding social compliance. However, preventing poor workplace practices in third-party factories, no matter their location and/or size remains is a considerable challenge for all brands.

The poor production practices in Italy for example, are now front-and-center due to a New York Times article titled “Fashion’s Shadow Economy.” The piece centered on those practices within Italy, including the use of underpaid illegal subcontractors to sew luxury garments at their kitchen tables and not at a safely monitored facility. Unfortunately, the situation in Italy is not an isolated circumstance. In the United Kingdom, for example, a University of Leicester report uncovered that workers in East Midlands workshops are sewing garments for fast fashion retailers without labor contracts, while also not being paid on time and correctly and facing constant workplace humiliation and abuse. This justifies the question; how do we define a high-risk area? No region of the world is immune to the possibility of unethical manufacturing practices. 

There is a simple reality. Except in rare situations, manufacturers will make business decisions based on doing what is necessary to maintain a positive balance sheet. Brands in the meantime, have little jurisdiction to when it comes to how operations are conducted in third-party factories.

Therefore, social compliance must be framed in a way where it makes good business sense for all parties involved. Brands need to see the value in maintaining a clean and ethical supply chain, and factories need to look at the value in being a part of such a construct.

A robust social compliance certificate, provided by an independent stakeholder such as WRAP, is a first step in obtaining that goal. A certificate offers instant and visible benefits. It should be the mindset of the industry to reward good actors through constant reinforcement of positive practices. I, for one, am proud to be a part of WRAP, an organization that has a tremendous role to play in this whole dynamic

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