Clothing industry

Sweatshop Scheme Falters

An employee works in a factory of Babylon Garments in Dhaka
Keeping Germans in shirts. Source: Reuters

A government-backed plan for German fashion companies to improve conditions for textile workers in the developing world is at risk of failing, campaigners say.

The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, an alliance of business federations, firms and non-governmental organizations, had a peak of nearly 200 members but has seen dozens quit and others excluded in the past three years.

Just 34 members have so far presented plans to improve conditions at so-called sweatshops in countries such as Bangladesh, where 1,135 people were killed when a commercial building collapsed in Dhaka in April 2013.

“Fewer and fewer companies are taking part in the alliance, and the remaining ones are arguing about how to present their planned measures,” said Greenpeace textile industry expert Alexandra Perschau. She urged the government to push for legislation that makes companies “legally liable for breaches of social standards and environmental rules.” France, she added, had such a law.

Germany is the largest clothing market in Europe, with an 18 percent share. It is also the second biggest importer of textiles in the world after the US, importing €36.2 billion of goods in 2013. The majority (51 percent) come from Asia, with Bangladesh the second-largest trading partner.

This has made the country a target for criticism regarding the conditions for Asian textile workers. In Bangladesh, about 3.5 million people, mostly women, are employed in the textile industry, usually earning little more than the minimum wage of about €30 ($35) a month. Many are forced to work up to 16 hours a day in unsafe and unregulated factories, according to charity War on Want. Well-publicized disasters such as building collapses and fires have highlighted their plight.

The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles was formed in October 2014 following a spate of deadly accidents in textile factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. As well as aiming to improve conditions for overseas workers, it also promotes a more sustainable supply chain.

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The alliance started out with high hopes, but its experience so far has been sobering. Many of the members quit at the end of last year while others were excluded because they failed to submit concrete measures. A total of 129 members, including 87 companies, have presented a so-called road map detailing how they want to improve social justice and environmental standards in the nations whose cheap labor sustains their business models.

However, most of them haven’t disclosed what exactly they plan to do, and they’ve pointed out that they’re not obliged to publish their intentions until 2018. Only 34 firms have published plans, including sports equipment giant Adidas, discount supermarket chains Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd, budget clothing firm Kik, retailer Otto Group and Tchibo, which sells clothes at its coffee stores.

Aldi Süd said it plans to assess its suppliers by “ecological and social criteria.” Those that score well will receive more orders than suppliers with worse ratings. Tchibo wants to increase the share of sustainable cotton used in its textiles by 5 to 10 percent next year above the current level of 80 percent.

But Germany’s development minister, Gerd Müller, who initiated the alliance, needs broader backing from the textile industry to achieve his ambitious target of having the alliance cover 75 percent of Germany’s clothing trade. Right now, it’s just 50 percent.

Members have come to his aid by criticizing their reluctant peers. “The partnership can only tackle the challenges of the textile industry if members with a broad coverage of the market take part,” said Ansgar Lohmann, head of corporate social responsibility at Kik. He said all textile producers should face “equal conditions to guarantee fair competition.”

Skeptics include clothes retailer Ernsting’s Family. A spokesman for the company said it had decided to suspend its membership and hold off publishing its sustainability plan until it was able assess the overall direction of the textile alliance.

The organizers admit that it will take a long time to push through fairer and more environmentally sustainable clothing production because the market is huge and complex. Jürgen Janssen, head of the partnership’s secretariat, said the publication of the road map should encourage other companies to join the scheme.


Georg Weishaupt covers the luxury and fashion industry for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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