The new Textile Standard is a welcome Fairtrade initiative. Manufacturing will now join the already well developed farming activities. With this initiative, Fairtrade surely wants to help consumers find textile products that comply with high environmental and social sustainability requirements.
Fairtrade does take on a formidable challenge. Let’s hope that it will work.
When the initiative was first announced I was asked to look into the feasibility of the proposed Standard on behalf of the German development and cooperation ministry (BIZ). My report is available, I am happy to send it if requested. In this 100-page report I did of course reflect on the complexity of the cotton supply chains – yes this is mainly about cotton.
My conclusion and recommendation could well have been that this was an unrealistic endeavour. The seriousness and commitment of the people driving the project – as well as the unique Fairtrade concept itself – convinced me that it makes sense to support the plan. That was my recommendation to the German authorities
The new standard on its own cannot ensure decent labour conditions. All will depend on how Fairtrade will apply it.
Labour conditions in major producing countries are notoriously difficult to monitor and assess. Fairtrade intends to do this through their own – independently managed – auditing and certification agency FLO-CERT. They say that they do have the necessary expertise for industry audits but need to prove this also in practice. Can FLO-CERT do a credible work in a cost-effective way also when Fairtrade products are only a small part of a factory’s output? How reliable will a Fairtrade Label be when attached to a garment in a retail store? What happens when inevitable problems in factory production arise? Can there be an unwanted fall-out on existing Fairtrade labels?
These are some of the questions that arise, many related to this being a new endeavour and not necessarily Fairtrade-specific. Let’s hope that this will work fine for FLO-CERT. It would not be correct to predict problems before the activities have even started. Still, it would seem to be a bit of a shaky ground.
We should not forget that Fairtrade has many strengths as well. Most corporate social responsibility codes and standards tend to deal only with the last manufacturing steps in supply chains. Already sub-contractors are often less well monitored. Fairtrade is among the very few that are solidly present in farming. Their alternative approach to global trade is supported by many consumers and deserves a role also in the textile sector. While it would hardly become the mainstream it can still be another catalyst for broader positive change.
Some social advocacy organisations and global union federations have already dismissed the Fairtrade initiative. I can share many of their question marks and reservations, but not their negative conclusions.
The best way to set labour conditions is surely through legislation and collective agreements between employers and trade unions. National and industry-wide agreements play an important role in addition to well functioning local social dialogue and negotiations. Government participation through an effective labour inspection and other measures is essential.
We know that we are still far from this in the main producing regions and countries. Here, social audits remain the main tool for monitoring labour conditions and laying the ground for remediation and capacity building.
The global trade unions should in fact see the new Fairtrade Standard should as a welcome support to national and local unions for their organising efforts. It takes a step forward from passive recognition of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining by requiring also some active enabling measures by employers.
To use the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Accord as an argument to dismiss social sustainability codes and standards is not realistic. There are many elements in it which came about in the very special situation for which it was created and which would surely not be accepted by all those concerned, for a more general sustainability approach. We can see this already in the reaction of most US-based brands and retailers which have chosen to do their share in Bangladesh through their own Alliance.
It is important to make sure that global buyers are engaged in active work to protect human rights and improve labour conditions in global supply chains. Political differences in consumer countries must not hinder or complicate this engagement. The right balance between legal obligations and corporate policies must be found through tripartite dialogue and cooperation, including the preparation of National Action Plans for implementing the UN Guidelines for Business and Human Rights. Wherever this leads us we will see many different kinds of programmes that complement each other. Fairtrade is one of them, indeed an especially interesting one.