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Sabine Anton-Katzenbach

Expert Opinion

4th May 2012, Hamburg

Committed to fairness


In this third part of a three part feature on sustainability Sabine Anton-Katzenbach discusses how retailers, producers and importers have begun campaigning for working conditions that are socially sustainable, within the scope of their corporate social responsibility (CSR).

T-shirts for 4 Euros, jeans for 20 Euros and dungarees for 9.99... Bargain clothing is in great demand in Germany. In order to keep shelves bulging with cheap merchandise, the clothing industry has shifted its labour-intensive production to countries that are hardly known for fair treatment of employees and working in accordance with the law. But exploitative working conditions in Bangladesh, China, India and elsewhere have now brought a counter movement into the arena.

Within the scope of their corporate social responsibility (CSR), retailers, producers and importers have begun campaigning for working conditions that are socially sustainable. Together with the movement for ecological sustainability, this is another crucial cornerstone towards creating a future oriented society worldwide, which pays attention to quality of life for all people.

The production of a garment is labour-intensive, no matter how simple it may look. Sewing in particular requires a high level of staff input because the various pattern pieces have to be joined together by hand like a puzzle.

It is only possible to automate a few sewing processes. Wages account for 20 to 30 percent of the total production costs in the fashion and garment industry. The manual element is also felt in other areas of textile processing. Even though home textiles and textiles produced for the hospitality industry mostly have straight seams, the manual labour that goes into bed linen, towels and similar items should not be underestimated either.

This makes the production of consumer textiles too expensive in high-wage countries with statutory wage levels. Clothing manufacture has long since been shifted from domestic sewing rooms to low-wage countries, in order to keep fashion affordable for all. This type of relocation is also known as offshoring.

Countries like Bangladesh, China, India or Vietnam have proven especially suitable for the clothing industry – none of them are necessarily known for good standards in terms of social welfare, labour and health protection methods. They are not all that particular about human rights either: child labour, excessive overtime, violence in the workplace and withholding of wages speak for themselves. And should the authorities impose controls, they are often sidestepped with courtesies and allocation of favours.

We need to rethink the social division in the world

For some time now, conditions like those described above have not been left unchallenged – the principle of ‘offshoring at all costs’ is gradually becoming shaky. A steadily increasing number of retailers and manufacturers are changing their views and now demand that their production sites in the Far East comply with basic labour rights.

 In essence, this change in outlook is linked to the sustainability idea that has become a huge trend. It not only incorporates ecological and economic concepts but also the principles of social welfare, because these are imperative for a society in which it is worth living, and which is fit for the future.

To exclude them and uphold the system of social division would intensify the danger of enormous social conflicts in the world. In view of economic dependency as a result of globalisation, a move in that direction cannot be desirable. Therefore more and more companies that have their garments manufactured in the Far East urge their partners to comply with social, financial and legal standards in their employment policies.

Different methods are applied in order to exert influence. Some companies, for example, take the initiative and establish social projects for the employees of the partner company or for a region. Controlling and monitoring has to take place directly on site, however, in order to ensure a project’s success in the long run.

Alternatively, since they rarely have staff of their own in the countries in question, companies can join a non-government organisation (NGO) with local supervisory bodies. With regard to cotton production for example, the Fairtrade Initiative endeavours to support disadvantaged cotton producing families in Africa, Asia and Latin America and improve their living and working conditions through fair trading.

Organisations like the Fair Wear Foundation or the Clean Clothes Campaign on their part assist their member companies worldwide in enforcing demands for social sustainability in the garment industry.

In countries where conditions are critical, they mainly campaign for the freedom to choose a workplace, freedom of assembly, banning of child labour and excessive overtime, legally controlled working conditions, a ban on discrimination, fair wages and adherence to safety and health standards in the workplace.

Taking action together

Government organisations such as the UN Global Compact provide another opportunity to exert forceful influence on the creation of social justice worldwide. The Compact is a United Nations initiative to encourage companies to adopt strategies and processes based on defined principles within the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption.

More than 8,000 businesses and groups of companies, cities, public corporations, universities and institutes as well as societies and associations have joined the Compact since it was launched in 2000.

One of them is the Industrieverband Textil-Service (Industrial Association for Textile Services) in Frankfurt. Through its membership it wants to show its own members opportunities for implementing responsible and sustainable management because even though work-wear and protective clothing is largely made in countries close to Europe, a number of items are still imported from the Far East. The same applies to textiles used in the hospitality industry and the health sector, in bathrooms and kitchens, and on beds and tables.

Another influential government organisation is the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a specialised UN agency with 183 member countries affiliated to it. These countries are represented in the various ILO bodies by government agents, employees and employers.

The focus of this organisation is on drafting and implementing international labour and social norms – core labour norms in particular – incorporating social responsibility and fairness into globalisation and creating decent working conditions as a key prerequisite for poverty eradication.

Sense of social responsibility on the rise

A company that obtains its garments and textiles through offshoring therefore has various possibilities at its disposal for directly or indirectly influencing the improvement of social standards in the world - and a growing number of importers, retailers and producers are indeed facing up to this responsibility.

Corporate social responsibility is becoming part of entrepreneurial action and is incorporated into company philosophy. But even though the goals are the same, the character of corporate social responsibility is very individual.

Since social responsibility affects all members of a given community, the commitment of many companies is not restricted to the Far East. CSR does not know any territorial borders and it is often extended to cover regional social projects as well. In this way every company, irrespective of the number and type of individual initiatives, contributes to the fundamental goal of sustainable development: to satisfy today’s needs without the risk that future generations will be unable to satisfy their own needs.


Sabine Anton-Katzenbach

Textile finishing specialist Cert-eng. Sabine Anton-Katzenbach provides technical consultancy services for the textile and apparel industries through her company, Büro für Textiltechnische Beratung. She is also an accredited journalist and her clients include companies from the chemical, fibre, textile and apparel industries, textile service companies, marketing agencies and publishers. [email protected]

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