Ques­tions for cloth­ing brands

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY ARUNA KASHYAP Aruna Kashyap (on Twit­ter at @ajkashy) is se­nior coun­sel in the women’s rights divi­sion of Hu­man Rights Watch.

Last year, I huffed my way up a steep, nar­row flight of stairs to meet a man who owned a small gar­ment work­shop in west­ern In­dia. The work­shop – with about 20 male work­ers sewing – was hot and stuffy in the pun­ish­ing Indian sum­mer. But it looked like it was snow­ing.

The work­ers and ta­bles were cov­ered in fine cot­ton fiber-dust, which causes or ex­ac­er­bates res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases, and they weren’t wear­ing masks.

The owner pointed out the win­dow to what re­mained of a nearby build­ing that had burned down, shrug­ging about the dan­ger of fire haz­ards. The work­ers – all mi­grants from other parts of In­dia – earned a daily wage and lived in the work­shop to save on rent.

This is a snapshot of the un­der­belly of the global ap­parel in­dus­try. The owner said he pro­duced branded clothes for global ap­parel com­pa­nies. He showed me the dresses and blouses his work­ers had sewn. Some were for big-name brands and re­tail­ers in the United States that do not dis­close their sup­plier fac­to­ries on­line.

Sub­con­tract­ing to small work­shops like this – which typ­i­cally hap­pens with­out the com­pany’s permission – is a com­mon prac­tice in the ap­parel in­dus­try. At Hu­man Rights Watch, we’ve found scores of these sub­con­trac­tor fac­to­ries in Cam­bo­dia and Bangladesh. Work­ers in these fac­to­ries of­ten endure far worse work­ing con­di­tions than those in larger fac­to­ries.

I’ve spo­ken to sourc­ing ex­perts who have worked for decades with nu­mer­ous global brands. They say many ap­parel com­pa­nies make poor es­ti­mates of con­sumer de­mands and timeta­bles for or­ders, don’t mon­i­tor fac­to­ries’ ca­pac­i­ties, make last-minute de­sign changes, use buy­ing agents whose prac­tices they don’t rig­or­ously mon­i­tor, and set un­re­al­is­tic low prices. Bad pur­chas­ing prac­tices con­trib­ute to unau­tho­rized sub­con­tract­ing and other prac­tices that put work­ers and the com­pa­nies them­selves at risk.

Brands and re­tail­ers could take nu­mer­ous steps to curb these risks. Some do, some don’t. The more they hear from con­cerned con­sumers, the more likely the com­pa­nies are to act.

A re­cent sur­vey by the Con­sumer Goods Fo­rum and Futerra across seven coun­tries re­vealed that 55 per­cent of con­sumers want more in­for­ma­tion on so­cial, health, en­vi­ron­ment and safety is­sues in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process. Here are three con­crete de­mands con­sumers can make:

First, they should ask where cloth­ing and footwear brands make their prod­ucts. Such dis­clo­sure helps work­ers re­port abuses to brands when the brand’s own mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems fail to de­tect them.

A hand­ful of U.S. com­pa­nies do this to­day. For more than a decade, Nike and Levi’s have been pub­lish­ing the names, ad­dresses, and other de­tails of fac­to­ries that pro­duce their wares. Oth­ers who do so in­clude New Bal­ance, Disney, Gap, Fruit of the Loom, PVH, Un­der Ar­mour and VF Corp.

Se­cond, con­sumers should ask brands and re­tail­ers to pub­lish their poli­cies on re­spon­si­ble pur­chas­ing. De­mand­ing to see a pol­icy will spur com­pa­nies that don’t have one to create one.

Third, con­sumers should press brands and re­tail­ers to dis­close how they are ranked on their pur­chas­ing prac­tices by their sup­pli­ers. Bet­ter Buy­ing, an in­dus­try mon­i­tor­ing group, al­lows sup­pli­ers to anony­mously rank brands’ pur­chas­ing prac­tices and pub­lishes re­ports. Brands and re­tail­ers should co­op­er­ate with Bet­ter Buy­ing and pub­lish a sum­mary of their scores.

Gar­ment com­pa­nies’ busi­ness prac­tices have long been shrouded in se­crecy. But con­sumers and in­vestors have the power to in­sist on greater open­ness, and bet­ter treat­ment for the work­ers who make their clothes.

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