MEPs are urging the EU to set rules establishing mandatory human rights obligations on partner countries

MEPs are urging the EU to set rules establishing mandatory human rights obligations on partner countries

The European Commission (EC) is being urged to bring forward legislation to enhance due diligence for apparel supply chains – and to introduce European Union (EU) tariff preferences and labels for sustainably-produced textiles and garments.

The recommendations were made earlier this week by the European Parliament's development committee.

MEPs backed a report by Spanish MEP Lola Sánchez Caldentey from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group, which asked the Commission to propose a European Union (EU) law saying a binding reporting system should generate data linking each product to its respective producers.

These assessments would check manufacturing, sourcing and distribution processes used are sustainable, and be based on OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development) guidelines and cover the whole supply chain.

Sánchez Caldentey said non-binding measures would not be enough to make the industry, which she claimed is "known for its exploitative practices," more responsible. This would ensure proper working conditions – so avoiding disasters like the collapse of the Dhaka, Bangladesh-based Rana Plaza clothing factory building in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 people.

"The EU has the means to set common rules that establish mandatory human rights obligations on partner countries and we are asking the Commission to do so," the Spanish MEP said after her resolution was adopted by 14 votes to 2, with 8 abstentions.

She called on "all political groups to live up to their responsibilities and support the report" when it is debated by the full parliament in plenary session on 26 April. "The European People's Party [Parliament's largest political group] abstained today but they have a clear choice: either support human rights and dignity for all people or ignore the violations in favour of a business as usual approach."

While the report is not legally binding for the Commission, it is influential. "It sends a strong signal that [the European] Parliament is waiting for a legal initiative," a Commission spokesperson told just-style.

Lamenting that the Commission had not produced a promised "EU-wide flagship initiative on the garment sector" when it released its 'Trade for All' strategy two years ago, Sánchez Caldentey said in her report: "Voluntary initiatives and codes of conduct are always welcome, but citizens expect more.

"Codes of conduct, labels, self-assessments and workers' audits have not proven to be at all effective over the last 20 years in terms of increasing workers' rights in the garment supply chain."

National initiatives

The proposal should focus on women's and children's rights and acknowledge national initiatives, such as France's draft Duty of Care law (Le Devoir de Vigilance) on mandatory due diligence and Dutch and German agreements on sustainable textiles, Sánchez Caldentey argued.

Dutch Parliament backs child labour due diligence law

But she added that voluntary initiatives also "recurrently overlap and fail to cover the whole supply chain's loopholes," and so her report demanded "a legally binding institutional framework."

There could be support for such an overarching rule from the parliament's international trade committee, whose members this week also adopted a report from British Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim, agreeing "the multiplication of existing initiatives could result in an unpredictable environment for companies."

For Sánchez Caldentey, "responsibility for unethical practices lies equally with producers, their affiliates and subsidiaries in the downstream, and distributors and retailers in the upstream."

She further emphasised that allowing long working hours, low wages, short lead times and hazardous conditions when companies outsource production to third countries would "impact negatively on the textile industry in Europe," as this results in social dumping.

The EU should ensure that "hot spot" textile exporting countries with preferential access to the EU market comply with obligations, development committee MEPs agreed.

In addition, the Commission should put in place "specific measures for small and medium-sized European enterprises" that make up 90% of Europe's garment industry. These could include a helpdesk to enable them to "invest in the sustainability of their supply chains" by "supporting match-making business platforms to connect them with fair trade and ethical fashion importers and suppliers in the EU and in its partner countries," said the Spanish MEP's report.

Tariff preferences

Sánchez Caldentey also urged the Commission to introduce tariff preferences allowing developing countries to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU on textiles proven to be produced sustainably. The Commission should consider this when revising the EU's Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Regulation in future, she argued.

Apparel companies should also promote the use of ecological and sustainably managed raw materials and the re-use and recycling of garments, her report suggests.

Industry will increasingly need to use clothing labels making the "social impact of production" visible on clothes, she said, to "help increase consumer awareness and bring about lasting change."

Some retailers including Swedish giant Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and the UK's Marks & Spencer already use such labels. And Primark, implicated in the Rana Plaza tragedy, operates a sustainable cotton programme.

According to World Trade Organization (WTO) figures, more than 70% of EU textiles and clothing imports come from Asia, where China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia are the largest producers.

The EU imports about half the world's total clothing production with manufacturing mostly in emerging countries.

The international trade committee opinion noted global trade in ready-made garments is worth some EUR2.8 trillion (US$3.02 trillion), employing up to 75m people. The European textile and garment industry encompasses 185,000 businesses employing 1.7m people, generating a EUR166bn turnover.