Are your clothes doing less bad or more good?
This is not a question we usually ask ourselves. Even when we do, the answer is not straightforward. The label in a garment may tell us where it was produced, but it doesn’t tell us whether it was made from child-picked cotton in Uzbekistan, spun by bonded labourers in India, dyed using hazardous chemicals in China, or cut and sewn in an unregistered factory in Bangladesh.
Increasingly, though, we want to know. Both consumers and brands across the world are beginning to realise that fashion often costs the dignity – and indeed the lives – of millions of men and women who make our clothes.
On the two-year anniversary of the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, millions participated in Fashion Revolution Day, probably the largest movement seeking more transparency and traceability in the global apparel industry. Using the hashtag #whomademyclothes the public asked their favourite brands about the people behind the product. At the same time brands that care, like C&A, are increasingly taking action to tackle the issues and make the industry fair and sustainable.
Even as these voices get louder, the truth is, we still have not found an equitable, just and ecologically sustainable way to clothe the masses, despite the powerful reasons to do so.
All of us – retailers, brands, suppliers, NGOs, governments, farmers and consumers – have a role in finding solutions
The global apparel industry is huge, providing livelihoods for over 100 million people, many of whom are amongst the world’s poorest. Its scale and reach means the industry has the potential to jump-start economies and improve lives. On the other hand, this scale and speed can overwhelm under-developed and under-regulated markets, a situation that can leave a harmful environmental footprint, and put the health and safety of workers at risk.
This is all too apparent in the production of cotton. Although there are sustainable alternatives, the fact remains that the vast majority of the world’s cotton is still grown conventionally and treated with large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. This damages ecosystems and endangers farmers’ health. We have seen heart-wrenching stories of farmers in cotton producing regions across the world getting sick with cancer. And in India, more than 270,000 conventional cotton farmers saddled with debt have committed suicide since 1995.
Beyond cotton production, things are not much better, as we continue to see instances of forced labour and poor working conditions across the industry. Such issues run deep and stem from a complex array of factors that are often hidden in the murky middle of a long supply chain. They cannot be solved by any one actor alone. All of us – retailers, brands, suppliers, NGOs, foundations, governments, farmers and consumers – have a role in finding solutions.
While we recognise the creative power of commerce, we believe that philanthropy also plays a critical role in creating a fair and sustainable apparel industry. To do so, however, we must ensure that we are working toward long-term solutions and not simply providing a palliative quick-fix. For that, we must first create a deep understanding of the issues and their underlying causes.
We believe philanthropy can and must play a pivotal role in creating a fair and sustainable industry.
C&A Foundation has been doing precisely that. We spend a lot of time engaging with key actors to learn how the foundation can meaningfully contribute. This past year, we curated a number of convenings to create consensus around issues and provided core support to several multi-stakeholder initiatives. We strengthened our own team across the world with experts in sustainable fibres, factory working conditions, human rights, and monitoring and evaluation. And we continue to work closely with the C&A business to better understand the complexity of the challenges we are tackling.
Most importantly, though, we continued to build partnerships with other stakeholders to work toward our aspiration: to transform lives through fair fashion. In 2014, we made 26 new grants to partners working on these issues, which together will touch more than 66,000 lives.
The result of this work is a focus on the key areas outlined in this report: improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder cotton farmers, eradicating forced labour in the supply chain, and enabling just and dignified working conditions. These are the issues where we believe we can have the biggest impact.
Over the coming years, we will deepen our work in these three areas and continue our work with other funders, brands and industry stakeholders. In particular, as we design and launch flagship initiatives in fighting forced labour with the Freedom Fund, foster organic cotton through the Organic Cotton Accelerator, and support multiple transparency initiatives across the industry.
With this report, the first in a series of three, we aim to start a dialogue around these key issues. We want to raise greater awareness, stimulate more collaboration, galvanise actors, and ask you to join us – and our partners – in working towards making fashion a force for good.