In 1991, Jeff Ballinger published a report documenting low wages and poor working conditions at Nike’s Indonesian factories. This began a long campaign of public outcry against Nike that included demonstrations at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and college student protests in 1997. The ensuing public shame Nike garnered for poor labor practices tarnished the company’s image and hurt sales. The effect on its bottom line forced Nike to step away from the industry status quo of taking capital advantage of workers throughout the supply chain.
By 1999, Nike had helped create the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit group that combined companies with human rights and labor representatives to establish independent factory monitoring and a code of conduct, including a minimum age and 60-hour work week, all while pushing other brands to join.
Our industry is going through the same thing today with the environment as what went on with how the workforce was treated in the 1990s. Companies know exactly what needs to be done, what is coming and what they need to avoid.
Full transparency and traceability is the future of our industry. Just like everything you eat has a label telling you what is inside and its impact, we are all eventually going to know the environmental impact of every component in our apparel. My question then is, if we know what’s coming, why are we not doing it now?
There are currently accreditations in place to inform consumers about companies doing the right thing. B Corp certifications are difficult to obtain, and those that secure them will tell you how much time and complexity there is to qualify, which is why they have meaning and status. But the real point of a B Corp certification is to inform the world of a company’s commitment to balancing profit and using its might to do the right thing. One would hope our industry would be full of B Corps, but it is not. There is no attempt to reward a B Corp or promote the work it does.
A traditional company’s purpose is to make a profit for its shareholders and raise long-term value. This mandate often blocks the firm’s management from doing the right thing—for their employees, supply chain or the environment—because it impedes management’s directives. We often see companies doing good things, but frequently they are done not because the corporation believes in the initiative but rather because the company is concerned of the perceived hit their brand value will take if they do not do them.
I bring this up because while our industry talks a lot about sustainability, there is lethargy in creating real measurable and sustainable assessment tools. Hazy initiatives are the norm. It seems most of what is being adopted are quasi-sound programs that delay the inevitable but sound good enough for most people to accept them as an excellent step forward along the environmental path. Meanwhile, those who genuinely care about steering our industry green are frustrated by the foot dragging on this crucial issue.
But what eco-friendly programs exist in the apparel industry? There is cotton program after cotton program, GMO (hush…don’t remind everyone that 95 percent of all cotton in major cotton-growing nations is GMO), organic or recyclable this or that, but does anyone really know if anything is true or proven? Is there any data associated with project efficacy? How many times have we heard that hemp is a preferable green fiber? Yet no one has ever published (from what I can tell) anything about the aggressive chemistry involved in the very difficult and unclean process needed to make this very stiff fiber soft.
What is frustrating in our industry is how brands do as little as possible for the environment while acting as if companies are doing the right thing. It’s really not unlike Nike’s years-long charade of the company not having unfair labor practices.
Saitex is a garment factory in Vietnam and is the first B Corp jean factory and laundry in our entire industry. Of the thousands of garment factories in the world, none that I know of are B Corps. One wonders why there are not more B Corps. Why do buyers not prefer to buy from B Corps or encourage more factories to be like Saitex? Why can’t brands and retailers be like Patagonia (another B Corp), and demand business be used for positive results?
To be fair, the jeans industry—and this includes the cotton and fiber industries—can be credited with many positive outcomes. But one that is in its grasp but not happening is the effort to supply real scientific data on every product, have a commitment to provide it and show how we are treating the Earth when manufacturing our clothes.
Andrew Olah is the CEO and partner of full-service textile company Olah, Inc. He is also the founder of denim supply chain trade show Kingpins. To learn more about Olah, Inc., click here.