Keynote Listener: Theresa Lankes

NGO Power as a Key Driver for Fair Fashion A corporate lawyer’s perspective

by Theresa Lankes, Keynote Listener (Solution Stage: NGO Power and Fair Fashion) at the 8thInternational Conference on Sustainability & Responsibility in Cologne

What is the greatest mystery of sustainability? Although we know what is right, we do not adjust our behaviour accordingly. We all know that fair fashion saves lives, but it has yet to reach its tipping point into mainstream.

#8ICSR Solution Stage: NGO Power and Fair Fashion

Kalpona Akter, CEO of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Khin Nilar Soe, Vice General Secretary of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar, shared their experiences as textile workers. Since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh killed more than 1130 textile workers, dehumanising working conditions in Asian textile factories form part of collective knowledge in Western societies.

If consumers in the Global North know about this, why don’t they buy more fair and organic clothes? Zara Berberyan has dedicated her Ph.D. thesis at Hamburg School of Business Administration (HSBA) to analysing this gap between walk and talk. She presented product and consumer-related factors for ethical fashion consumption.

Offering consumers fair fashion requires socially and environmentally sustainable supply-chains. To this end, the platform amfori by Business Social Compliance Initiative, German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (Textilbündnis) and Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) take different approaches. Monika Eigenstetter, Professor for Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Applied Sciences Niederrhein, used a checklist on the strategic decision-making determinants for small and middle-sized enterprises at amfori and FWF. Whilst the overall results seemed fairly similar, a far greater percentage of FWF members participated and their grievance mechanisms scored better.

Solution Stage: NGO Power and Fair Fashion stayed true to its name by offering the following approaches for fair fashion:

  • A key driver for change is You, the consumer, according to Kalpona Akter and Khin Nilar Soe. All of us in the Global North have far greater leverage than we credit ourselves with: Buying organic and fair clothes, lobbying our favourite brands, politicians at home and in sourcing countries, supporting organisations like Femnet and ECCHR are a few ideas I would like to add to their call for action.
  • Textilbündnis and FWF offer an important space between non-governmental organisations and companies for establishing sustainable supply chains. They are, however, no substitute for effective campaigns which use blaming and shaming techniques explained Sina Marx, Coordinator for Femnet e.V.
  • Zero workers died in factory fires since the establishment of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a drop in numbers from several hundred per year. The effectiveness of this legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions underlines, in Kalpona Akter’s opinion, the need for binding human rights due diligence in textile supply-chains.
  • A central argument against raising wages in the textile sector is the fear that suppliers will then outsource. Action Collaboration and Transformation (ACT) is an international cooperation between big brands, retailers and suppliers as well as the international trade union IndustriALL to achieve living wages for workers promoting, amongst others, freedom of association and collective bargaining in key textile sourcing countries.
  • Further suggestions included: Prohibiting politicians from owning textile factories to avoid the current conflicts of interest among one third of Bangladeshi parliamentarians, and mounting political pressure on the state of Myanmar to subject investors to rules.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play a key role in all of these approaches. The exchange between two academics, an NGO representative and two trade unionists was facilitated by Sarah Jastram, Professor for International Business Ethics and Sustainability at HSBA and co-publisher of Sustainable Fashion – Governance and New Management Approaches.

In the Q&A session, I asked Kalpona Akter about her opinion on the civil suit against textile company KiK by four Pakistani nationals in the Higher Regional Court of Dortmund, Germany. My presentation at A Sustainable Supply Chain at #8ICSR’s Expert Insight sessions had analysed its impact on CSR in Germany. Kalpona Akter found this precedent encouraging for survivors to bring more cases in the future and to continue fighting for a binding law on human rights due diligence. This Solution Stage showed that it may take more than court cases for fair fashion to tip into mainstream – but NGOs will continue leveraging their power as a key driver for fair fashion.

A current example for the need of new governance and management approaches is the struggle for the Bangladesh Accord. Although successful for workers’ rights, it may not be able to continue its work after 30 November 2018 due to a restraining order. With this order, the High Court in Bangladesh prohibits the Accord’s inspectors to work after this date. Around one third of politicians in Bangladesh own textile companies. They are said to have significantly objected to the Accord and its continuation.

On 25 November 2018, four days before the public hearing in the Ali Enterprises’ case in Dortmund, KiK’s Head of Corporate Responsibility, Ansgar Lohmann, expressed support for the Accord in Handelsblatt, a major German business newspaper: “If the Accord were to leave Bangaldesh, this would be a major setback”. If nothing more, the stance taken by this textile company is evidence for the NGO power to influence public discourse in the Global North.

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