By Eric Dirnbach, ILRF Board Member
The New York Times recently reported in their article “Clothes Makers Join to Set ‘Green Score’”, on the formation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. This is a new industry initiative to provide more information to consumers about the environmental aspects of apparel and footwear production, through the use of sustainability index scores for products. According to the Coalition’s launch press release:
“The Coalition will work on a collaborative approach to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products sold around the world by:
- Leading the industry toward a shared vision of sustainability built on an industry-wide index for measuring and evaluating apparel and footwear product sustainability;
- Spotlighting promising technological innovations; and
- Identifying opportunities for improving current social and environmental practices throughout the supply chain by collaborating to establish consistent expectations for brands, retailers, and manufacturers.”
But what does this new project really mean for consumers, and is there any role here for industry workers?
But that brings up a further problem, one that the industry does not like to discuss. A major root cause of bad environmental practices in factories, which is the same cause of sweatshop working conditions, is the relentless drive toward the lowest product costs. Global apparel corporations outsource to a large and shifting network of sweatshop factories they have no direct control over in order to reduce costs to the minimum. This leads to factories cutting corners on environmental compliance, health & safety conditions for workers, and also wages and benefits.
Setting up corporate-controlled initiatives like this Sustainable Apparel Coalition, with a paltry $2 million budget, cannot begin to solve this problem, but they certainly hope that consumers will believe that the industry is doing something about this issue. However, this leaves a lot of questions unanswered. When products hit the shelves with “sustainability” scores, will this be really meaningful information for consumers? Will higher scores really mean better, more sustainable production, and how? And what about the wages and working conditions for the workers who make these products. Doesn’t that still matter? If this effort is like most others, we can expect a lack of genuine transparency and little factory improvement.
Moreover, in this project there appears to be no genuine labor rights organizations or unions involved that would represent the interests of the factory workers who suffer the most from harmful production processes. For example, see the New York Times article photo, which shows no protective equipment in sight for these workers who are dying apparel fabric. Verite is listed as a member of this Coalition, and the Times refers to them as a “labor rights group”, but that is a loosely used term. Organizations that work on labor rights for companies cannot replace the voice of trade unions; such groups do not represent workers and to imply that their participation represents workers' interest is to take away space from workers and their elected representatives.
I’m sure this Coalition is intended to be more than just a public relations exercise for consumers, but fixing a systemic sweatshop industry will require a more comprehensive approach, the recognition that low product prices drive poor environmental practices and bad factory conditions, and the genuine empowerment of workers.