Ethical Threads: Behind the Global Apparel Industry’s Push for Human Rights

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

In 2013, dozens of American and European fashion firms were producing garments at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh when it collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500. The building had not been designed or permitted to house a factory, and management had ignored large cracks that had appeared in the walls the previous day.

In the five years since, the global reaction resulted in the rectification of 97,000 safety hazards in 1,600 Bangladeshi factories. Yet protecting workers’ health and safety—not to mention their basic human rights—remains a challenge.

In India, children as young as 8 labor for pennies a day in sweatshops. Cambodian garment workers are scolded for taking bathroom breaks, fired for getting pregnant, and beaten or shot by police when they organize protests for higher wages.

Elizabeth Pulos, International Trade and Marketing for the Fashion Industries ’15, an associate manager of social compliance at Macy’s, says the ongoing migrant and refugee crises have contributed to a surge in forced labor and human trafficking, with recruiters holding workers hostage by seizing their passports and garnishing their wages. In some countries, the government itself is the problem: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for example, force citizens to work in their countries’ cotton fields, harvesting plants that eventually enter the global supply chain.

According to Shireen Musa, an assistant professor of International Trade and Marketing who teaches international corporate responsibility and wrote her doctoral dissertation on sustainable sourcing, the fashion industry helped create this problem. Having invented a market for fast fashion, companies needed to source products more quickly and cheaply, so they looked to developing countries, where low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions are common.

But in recent years, many companies have taken a stand, introducing a variety of measures aimed at protecting workers.

IMPROVING FACTORY AUDITS According to Pulos, few international standards exist for factory safety. But many brands and retailers now have their own codes of conduct that align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—along with in-house departments dedicated to enforcing them.

Verifying the practices of a factory halfway around the world is neither cheap nor easy. Most large corporations pay third-party auditors to conduct inspections, and since these companies deal with many different factories, the expense of regular audits quickly adds up.

It’s costly for factories, too: a single one might contract with scores of apparel companies, forcing managers and workers to meet with several teams of auditors every week. Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a consortium of apparel brands and manufacturers, says the trivial demands of some audits prevent factory owners from investing in meaningful improvements to worker health and safety. The (possibly apocryphal) tale of the “three fire extinguishers” illustrates this: a factory in Bangladesh had three fire extinguishers mounted to a wall, one above the other—each satisfying the height requirement for a different inspection.

Audits aren’t foolproof, either. Many inspections begin and end at the factory, overlooking infractions at farms and mills. Fraud and corruption (keeping multiple sets of books, coaching workers to mislead auditors) are commonplace. And as Andrea Reyes, Global Fashion Management ’12, International Trade and Marketing ’09, points out, workers may be reluctant to tell the truth even when they aren’t afraid of being fired or beaten.

Reyes, who chairs the New York City Fair Trade Coalition (NYCFT), cofounded A. Bernadette, a company that works with female artisans in Uganda to create fair-trade accessories from recycled materials. She sources her goods in a socially responsible manner, visiting her artisans regularly and relying on a trusted local production manager in her absence. But she suspects that her artisans, like apparel workers the world over, would lie to an auditor if she asked them to.

“My artisans are going to say whatever I want them to say, because they don’t want to risk me walking away with my American dollar bills,” she says.

One solution to the problem of ineffective audits, Reyes suggests, is to use inspectors who are embedded in the communities where they work and understand the local culture and conditions. Better Work, a collaboration between the United Nations and the World Bank, takes this approach in order to improve working conditions while boosting competitiveness.

Technology can help as well. Confidential text- messaging hotlines are enabling garment workers to provide honest feedback in the auditing process. Mapping software that shows the location of every factory, mill, and farm involved in the production of a garment is giving companies a clearer look at their supply chains. Remote sensors and blockchain, a secure digital ledger, may one day provide a more reliable view of what’s actually happening on the shop floor.

Kibbey, meanwhile, advocates moving from a pass-fail auditing system to scaled social responsibility assessments that score factories’ performance and offer incentives to improve, such as more business or better pricing.