Challenges, even threats, remain in the accountability of supply chains, notably in the apparel industry. This is what Vivek K. Singh, a sustainability expert living in India, tells Your Public Value today. Although five years have passed since Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza tragedy that claimed 1,135 lives, many factories in the region continue to pose life-threatening risks. Supply chain accountability has become a growing concern for brands. It should be the case for consumers as well, Singh says. (Photo by Vivek K. Singh)
“In September 2012 a fire accident in a Pakistani textile factory claimed almost 300 lives and left another 600 people injured. The following November a similar accident took place in a Bangladeshi garment factory, leaving 112 dead and over 150 injured. As it appeared then, these two incidents were just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2014, anti-human trafficking activist Siddharth Kara issued a report (“Tainted Carpets”) that hit the headlines by highlighting the prevalence of child labor in India’s handmade carpet sector. Incidentally, a visit I paid last year to the city of Trichy (Tiruchirappalli) made me aware that the so-called Sumangali child labor scheme, although officially forbidden, remains widespread in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
But it is the horrendous tragedy of Rana Plaza in April 2013, which took the lives of 1,135 workers and left another 2,000 injured that brought the world’s attention to the living conditions and safety of textile workers in the Indian subcontinent, and the cost of fast fashion.
All these tragedies have one element in common: they highlight the lack of supply chain accountability to such a point that it is often impossible to understand who holds which responsibility in the apparel industry. Supply chain accountability has become a growing concern for brands. It should be the case for consumers as well.
The Challenge of Supply Chain Accountability
In the era of fast fashion, apparel and textile supply chains are becoming increasingly intricate. The accountability challenges of the textile and apparel sector are closely related to the rapid globalization and fierce competition to grab market shares, achieve high product churn rate and lower operational costs. This situation often incites world textile brands to outsource their production to developing countries such as India, China, and Bangladesh. Although national and international laws and conventions have been on the books for over half a century, legislative efforts have not led to systemic changes because the governments of developing countries, encouraged by international institutions, have put economic growth before adequate environmental and social regulations. This has de facto incited western brands to avoid responsibility.
Social and environmental challenges in Indian factories are nothing new and have always been difficult to detect. This is often because apparel brands have not imposed enough transparency in their production chains beyond tier 1 or 2 and may not be aware of pressing social, economic and environmental issues, let alone know how to tackle them. Until April 2013, brands were uncertain as to whether they should invest into social accountability programs. However, the negative media attention brought by the Rana Plaza tragedy prompted a sustainability revolution in the apparel and textile sector.
This sustainability revolution gave rise to various social and environmental initiatives and brought together civil society organizations, governments, international institutions, and brands. However, these initiatives are still in the nascent phase and require significant investments, an inventive approach and a strong commitment from all stakeholders to find solutions to complex sustainability issues.
So, what are the major challenges in the textile industry, which are contributing to social and environmental damages?
Lack of Transparency
Accountability concerns in supply chains originate mainly from a lack of transparency. Most of the time western brands do not know precisely where the products they purchase are made and how work is organized in their outsourced factories, production units and homeworkers communities. They do not know which layers, and how many of them, are involved in their supply chains. Even local brands are kept in the dark. I have found in supply chains exporters, who were unaware of where their contractors outsourced their production. On many occasions exporters told me they didn’t know where the products they were selling were being manufactured. This lack of transparency increases the risk of ethical misbehaviors, which in turn challenge the enforcement of social accountability codes. Most brands are therefore confronted with a labor exploitation risk in their supply chains.
Working Conditions & Human Rights
In developing countries, such as India and Bangladesh, the apparel industry is a key economic driver and a significant source of employment. In India alone, this sector employs an estimated 45 million people and is worth over $120 billion. Complex social and economic conditions contribute to making these countries highly competitive in the global apparel market. Ironically, it’s the same multifaceted social and economic situation that creates the problematic environment we know in the apparel and textile supply chains.
True, the situation seems to be improving if one is to believe various recent reports, but the reality on the ground has not improved. Quite the contrary: working and human rights conditions seem to be deteriorating due to a growing demand and a high product churn rate.
When I read the latest Fashion Revolution Transparency report, I was amazed to see that among the apparel and retail brands that made to the top of the list were some whose supply chains in India include hidden outsourced production sites prone to human right violations. In the course of my research, I have found that workers face a myriad of challenges, including extended working hours, child labor, forced and bonded labor, job insecurity, unclear terms and conditions of work, lack of proper skills and education, and even physical and psychological abuse. I have also found children, who were working beside their parents at home, and this in the most reputable brands’ supply chains. Such conditions in supply chains can easily be considered as forced labor.
Health and Safety Issues
Global brands outsource their production to developing countries mainly because they seek to lower their production costs and maximise their profits. As they are not enough concerned for the well-being of their workers, they fail to apply basic health and safety standards in their production units. Many of the deadly accidents that have occured in the garment supply chain took place because basic health and safety standards were neglected. The primary evidence represented by the Rana Plaza tragedy compelled global apparel and textile brands to take social accountably seriously and enforce social compliance standards to prevent similar tragedies. But did they really resolve the local complex societal and economic issues?
Occupational health problems are common amongst workers in the apparel industry. Two years ago, I interviewed a number of homeworkers and suppliers of some well-known international fast fashion and carpet brands. Most of them complained to me that they were suffering from back pain, severe headache, and weak eyesight. In the Indian city of Panipat, which is a hub for the international garment industry, I have seen how the use of harmful chemical substances for dying and washing carpets causes severe health issues such as vomiting, tremors, and respiratory diseases.
The shift in consumer tastes results in excessive production of fabric to meet a never-ending demand. Nowadays fashion is produced at such low costs that it has become a throwaway product. Due to the volume of solid waste they create, abandoned textile products impact severely on the environment. They create significant waste materials that are not properly disposed of and contribute to aggravating land pollution.
At the same time, the textile industry is the second-largest user of water globally and releases contaminated water, which in turn pollutes drinking water and agricultural water and dramatically reduces the volume of water resources. It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water – that is, the volume of water a person drinks in the course of two and-a-half years – to produce one single cotton shirt, This is a major concern for many developing nations as they have no infinite supplies of groundwater. The textile industry uses various harmful chemicals that are directly responsible for the degradation of the environment.
Textile is an ancient and vital industrial sector, which meets fundamental human needs but it remains fraught with various accountability risks. In the wake of the Rana Plaza accident, stakeholders of the textile industry came together in a bid to address these issues and resolve complex societal and economic challenges. However, almost all programs and initiatives run by western companies do not grab the whole complexity of these social aspects.
What should be required are other innovative efforts that would involve local actors, who have a better understanding of realities on the ground. We should also make sure that consumers in the North better understand what it entails to create the fast fashion they wear.”
Are you moved by this blog? Please leave your comment below. Vivek can be reached via LinkedIn [linkedin.com/in/wiweck] and via Twitter @ Also, please write to us if you would like to share your thoughts on any topic related to public value. Your Public Value invites experts to share their views on the future of ethical business, business integrity, public value, and on business approaches to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals.