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The Rupp Report

The Rupp Report: The Hall Of Shame

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

Will textile brands and retailers ever wake up? For years, with an ongoing rise in participation, social media are putting their fingers on one of the major problems in the global textile industry: unacceptable working environments and low wages. A current example is the devastating circumstances in Bangladesh. The Rupp Report has informed a few times about the demoralizing situation for the workers. There are more than 4 million people, including some 3.5 million women, working in that country’s US$20 billion apparel industry.
 
Violating Safety Standards
As the organizers of the Public Eye Awards describe the situation in Bangladesh: “The rapid growth of the sector has come at a massive human cost. Factory fires and collapsed buildings are regular occurrences due to gross violations of safety standards. International brands sourcing from Bangladesh such as Gap have failed to ensure that their suppliers comply with even the most basic safety standards mandated by local law. Moreover, garment workers work intolerably long hours for poverty wages.” These facts also were reported some time ago.
 
Last year’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 workers, leading to an eruption of protests around the world, mainly via social media. Since then, more than 100 global apparel brands have signed the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety” in Bangladesh in a commitment to ensuring safety in their supply chain.
 
But not all did. “Fashion giant Gap, one of the top purchasers of Bangladeshi-made clothes, has refused to sign this binding agreement with unions. Instead, it is undermining serious reform by promoting a non-binding corporate-controlled program that’s completely unaccountable for the workers,” Public Eye states. “Gap says it is committed to workers’ rights and well-being, and it trumpets its programs for women in the developing world on a new website called ‘We Are Committed,’ But behind this seemingly rosy picture … , the company is leaving workers to fear for their safety.” To promote a better image, “Gap has substituted a publicity strategy for workers’ safety and rights and it has brought along other companies, like Walmart and Target, with it.” It would seem that PR campaigns for Gap are more important than the safety and the way of living for its workers. Yet, this could bounce back now.
 
San Francisco-based Gap Inc. is a major global apparel brand and has more than 3,000 stores worldwide. Its net profit for 2012 was more than US$1 billion. Just to remind the readers, the dangers to apparel industry workers have long been known, but, according to Public Eye, “Gap has done little to try and solve the problem.”
 
As mentioned several times in past issues of the Rupp Report the issue was to be seen from two sides: on the one hand, there is concern for the safety and the social impact for the people working in these conditions. On the other hand, there is the rising power of the social media. And it seems that social media have become rather dominant.
 
The Public Eye Awards
In 1999, according to Public Eye, “the Public Eye Awards started as a critical counterpoint to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos [Switzerland] and has now become a powerful online campaign with global reach. The Public Eye sheds a critical light on irresponsible business practices and provides a platform to publicly criticize cases of human and labor rights violations, environmental destruction or corruption. The date and location of the Public Eye Awards are set deliberately to coincide with the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. … The Public Eye Awards remind the corporate world that the social and environmental consequences of their business practices affect not only people and the environment, but also the reputation of the company.”
 
Awards Of Shame
“Today, the Public Eye consists of two ‘awards of shame’, the People’s Award and the Jury Award. They are awarded to corporations with a dismal record in terms of social and environmental responsibility,” the organization reports. “The Public Eye Awards aim to contribute to the overarching goal of social and ecological justice and demonstrate the necessity of effective and legally binding measures on a national and international level. Corporations need to be held accountable for their irresponsible business practices in their home state — no matter where these wrong-doings occur.”
 
On January 23, Public Eye host organizations the Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland presented the 2014 Public Eye Awards to Gap and Russian energy company Gazprom. The reason for awarding the prize to Gap was stated thus: “Fashion giant Gap has refused to sign the binding agreement ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.’ Instead, it is actively undermining serious reform by promoting a non-binding corporate-controlled program.”
 
The hall of shame? Who wants to be in such a spotlight as the website of the Public Eye? It seems that some companies don’t care too much about this questionable part of fame — even when former garment worker Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, mentioned: “These Western retailers have a responsibility — not just with getting their merchandise. They also have a responsibility to give a safe working place to (the people) making clothes for them.” On their internet platform, Public Eye writes: “Responsible sourcing by global brands like Gap is indispensable to improving the industry. Nevertheless, the factories they use frequently lack basic safety features like emergency exits, enough staircases, and up-to-date electrical systems. Managers have proven willing to sacrifice lives by ordering workers to remain in structurally unsound buildings.” But the story isn’t over yet. Greenpeace is also getting its knives out on the social media platform.
 
International Detox Campaign
Extensive Greenpeace studies in 2011 and 2012 showed that more than two-thirds of all branded apparel tested and sold worldwide contains hazardous pollutants, including the products of large fashion manufacturers and retailers such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Zara and Marks & Spencer. Greenpeace tested 233 garments from 37 different brands, which were produced in 19 different countries and sold in 29 different countries.
 
In the past few months, the international Greenpeace Detox campaign has convinced 17 leading textile brands and retailers to tackle the immense challenges for the detoxification of the textile industry and its global supply chain. These companies reported US$168 billion in net sales — 13 percent of the global textile, apparel and footwear market. What a promising start!
 
The Detox campaign is continuing to encourage global fashion brands and supermarkets to detoxify their products and supply chains by making transparent all pollutants still used in the manufacturing process and completely eliminating them by 2020. Greenpeace is convinced that this goal is technically feasible and that cost-effective solutions are available for most chemical applications and processes.
 
The pressure of the social media is rising: Public Eye declares on its internet platform that “Gap has a responsibility to respect garment workers’ rights and ensure their safety throughout the entire supply chain. The new Accord — which Gap refuses to sign — mandates higher safety standards, requires independent inspections, and obliges participating retailers to help fund safety improvements at their suppliers’ factories.”
 
Big Chance For The Industry
What a challenge and a chance for clever machinery suppliers and apparel producers to demonstrate to the world that they are able to fulfill these requirements — and to make money doing it. It would have a colossal business impact if one company could say: yes, we did it. Not to mention the positive image it would send to possible and future staff for the company. Who wants to work in an enterprise that is part of the hall of shame? If you, dear reader, are already in the position of saying “yes, we can do that,” please send your thoughts to the Rupp Report jrupp@textileworld.com.
 
And, as a father of two children and future grandpa, the author hopes — also for the sake of the entire textile industry — that the pressure will rise to put enterprises that do not behave humanely much more in the spotlight. This has nothing to do with “green ideas” — it’s only about respect for the people. However, as long as Gap and its allies persist in their ignorance, “many other factories will continue to escape serious scrutiny and lack the funds for essential safety features,” writes Public Eye. Now, some 34.9 million entries related to the issue “hall of shame” can be found on Google.
 
February 18, 2014
 




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