Modern-day slavery exists, and unfortunately, it's often fueled by the fashion industry. A brand-new study released by KnowTheChain — an organization that reports on corporate practices to encourage increased responsibility — ranked 20 footwear and apparel companies on their efforts to eradicate forced labor in their supply chains.
Forced labor, a practice in which people are coerced into performing services or work, often exploits women, children and other vulnerable individuals to perform cheap or even free labor.
Because forced labor can occur on so many levels in the production process — from the factories where fabrics are being cut and sewn to the textile-production houses to the gathering of raw materials like cotton and leather — fashion is a particularly at-risk sector, according to KnowTheChain Project Director Killian Moote. "One recent study found that in nine countries (including China, India, Uzbekistan and Pakistan), which produce 65 percent of the world's cotton, forced labor is a significant issue," he told Fashionista over the phone.
The organization's latest report includes companies like Gap Inc., H&M, Prada and PVH Corp. (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), pointing out problems and offering suggested solutions for brands that scored poorly. It combines publicly available information as well reports disclosed to KnowTheChain by the brands themselves, and creates benchmarks based on different themes like monitoring and purchasing practices.
Adidas, Gap Inc., H&M and Lululemon topped the list with scores between 69 and 81 out of a hundred, while Kering — the holding company behind Gucci, Saint Laurent, Puma and more — was near the bottom with a score of 21. Prada scored a pretty abysmal nine out of 100 points, beating only Chinese manufacturers Belle International and Shenzhou International Group.
So why do some of the high street brands like H&M receive better scores than designer labels like Prada, even though they charge so much less for their wares? "In no way is our evaluation an indication that forced labor doesn't happen or that other labor issues aren't an issue for these high street companies," Moote explained. "It's important to read our report in the context of other known abuses." Still, he noted that there is a marked difference, and that it probably stems from the fact that brands like Gap Inc. and H&M — partly due to scrutiny stemming from very public abuses in the past — have a longer history of trying to engage these issues.
Some of the most prominent themes that need addressing in the industry as a whole, according to the report, are recruitment and worker voice. Abuses related to recruitment may come about when middlemen charge exorbitant fees — as much as 40 percent of laborers' paychecks — in order for workers to even land jobs in the first place, putting them in crippling debt that limits their mobility and options. This can be addressed, according to Moote, by companies requiring that their suppliers hire directly rather than through recruiters, or by committing to reimbursing workers' recruitment fees upon hiring. "No one should have to pay to work," he said.
Another large issue is that of worker voice. "Too often, traditional monitoring programs don't take into consideration working with the employees directly to make sure that they have the opportunity to voice concerns, or collectively organize or speak for themselves about what issues might exist for them," Moote noted. This issue can be tackled by companies communicating their codes via posters written in the local language in addition to training sessions and SMS messaging that communicates a company's standards clearly.
One last issue raised by multiple themes in KnowTheChain's study is the way that risks are often passed down the supply chain, so that brands can claim they have no responsibility for abuses that happen at lower tiers in production. This is a common response after incidents like the devastating Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, in which over a thousand garment workers were killed but some of the brands involved claimed not to know their garments were being produced in the building.
"It's not just about a company's commitment, policies or monitoring. It's also about having a holistic approach to defining what risks look like for them as a company and taking steps to address them," Moote said.
In order to do so, the report suggests, companies can adjust their purchasing practices. Being careful to avoid short-term contracts, excessive pressure to lower pricing, and sudden changes of workload size decreases a brand's risk of ending up with the kind of suppliers that rely on human trafficking. Having a process in place to trace their supply chains and assess the risk of forced labor can also help mitigate potential abuses. "The greater the opacity," Moote noted, "the greater the risk of potential exploitation."
Encouragingly, fashion as an industry scored higher on average than the food or tech sectors did, both of which KnowTheChain also reviewed earlier this year. But considering that fashion companies have been engaging with documented forced labor abuses for over a decade longer than their contemporaries in tech, it's troubling on some level that the differences are not more pronounced.
Still, Moote has hope that through increased accountability and consumer awareness, the industry can continue to change for the better. And while the report lays out action for big business to take, Moote believes that the average consumer has a role, too.
"If you want to be a conscious consumer, this is the commitment of a lifestyle," Moote said. "It's not about a single purchase. So make sure that the brands you're shopping with represent your values. Brands respond when they hear from their consumers, too, so make clear that you will support them if they take steps to address these risks."
Read the full report from KnowTheChain here.