All actors in the apparel supply chain are being to embrace transparency, accountability and collaboration

All actors in the apparel supply chain are being to embrace transparency, accountability and collaboration

Around EUR29m (US$32m) was invested last year by the C&A Foundation in initiatives across the clothing supply chain – but the philanthropic group is urging a joint effort from all stakeholders to find solutions to the challenges that remain.

The corporate foundation affiliated with global retailer C&A has outlined its efforts in its latest annual report 'Making Fashion a Force for Good: The Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Apparel Industry,' which it hopes will spur dialogue and action within the apparel industry.

Among its achievements, the body said its portfolio of projects increased by 25% year-on-year in 2014. Within this it committed EUR3.9m to improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder cotton farmers, with 11 initiatives funded in 2014. It also invested EUR3.1m to eradicate forced labour in the supply chain, and pledged EUR7.1m across a range of projects from environmental and water footprint, to sustainable lives, innovation, and coalition building.

The main focus of its work with cotton farmers was in India, followed by Regional Asia, China, Pakistan and Tanzania. India also saw the bulk of its commitment to eradicate forced labour, while projects to enable just and dignified working conditions centred on Turkey, Bangladesh, China and Regional Asia.

"We still have not found an equitable, just and ecologically sustainable way to clothe the world," admits Leslie Johnston, executive director of C&A Foundation, pointing out that while fashion can be a force for good, "all of us - retailers, brands, suppliers, NGOs, governments, farmers and consumers - must work together towards long-term solutions to reach the ultimate goal of a fair and sustainable industry."

In 'Making Fashion a Force for Good,' C&A Foundation discusses some of the complexities of the major challenges facing the apparel industry.

As the world's largest buyer of organic cotton in 2014, purchasing 46,000 metric tonnes, C&A has been championing its use for many years. But it points out that that less than 1% of the world's total cotton production last year was organic, with supply halving over the last five years.

"The fact remains that the vast majority of the world's cotton is still grown conventionally and treated with large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. This damages ecosystems and endangers farmers' health," the report says.

Other areas not much better
Beyond cotton production, it adds, "things are not much better, as we continue to see instances of forced labour and poor working conditions across the industry."

Six of the 10 countries with the highest number of people in modern slavery are known to use forced labour in the garment, textile or cotton supply chains, the report says - whether it is child labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, or the Sumangali schemes in spinning mills in southern India.

The numbers are shocking: Thailand 480k (garment industry), Uzbekistan 1.2m (cotton), Pakistan 2.1m (cotton), China 3.2m (garment and textiles), India 14m (garment) and Russia 1m (textiles).

"The issues run deep and stem from an array of factors that are often hidden beneath the factory level where the supply chain is more complex," explains Brandee Butler, head of partnerships & innovation at C&A Foundation.

At the factory level, international brands and retailers have been successful in ensuring their suppliers are compliant with local laws and codes of conduct, but as more subcontractors come into play, it becomes extremely difficult to enforce standards.

"With this complexity, a lack of transparency and traceability in the supply chain means this crime remains unseen and unpunished."

She adds: "Making the problem visible creates more accountability, particularly for those with the power to enforce regulations."

Nick Grono CEO of The Freedom Fund and deputy president of International Crisis Group, suggests there are three main factors driving forced labour: demand for cheap goods, the vulnerability of certain populations and weak law enforcement. "It is when all three occur together that modern day slavery tends to occur. This makes tackling the problem complicated, but it's important to address these factors concurrently."

He notes that in the apparel industry, demand for low-priced fashion fuels pressure to pay low wages which, in turn, drives suppliers to move to lower-cost countries, like India. "The most unscrupulous factories recruit vulnerable women and girls from marginalised communities into forced labour, paying wages that are below the national minimum wage."

Working conditions
When it comes to creating just and dignified working conditions for apparel workers, Jill Tucker, head of supply chain innovation & transformation at the C&A Foundation, suggests the problem is compounded by a lack of transparency and traceability in the supply chain.

"To make any sort of change at the most basic level brands, consumers and worker advocates need to know where their garments are produced," she notes, adding: "The journey that a garment makes to reach a consumer is complex and largely unmapped."

One possible solution might be to publicly disclose audit information, which would compel factories to make changes and allow for comparison between factories and brands.

But the over-riding message is that no one retailer, brand, supplier, NGO, foundation or government can solve the challenges alone.

Instead, the C&A Foundation is calling on "all actors in the apparel supply chain to come together to break the existing paradigms by embracing transparency, accountability and collaboration."

Click on the following link to read the full report: 'Making Fashion a Force for Good: The Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Apparel Industry'