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Regardless of Motive, Experts Urge the Denim Supply Chain to Set CSR Standards

The apparel industry has trust issues, and according to a panel of industry experts, those issues are getting in the way of doing good business.

At Kingpins in Amsterdam last week, founder Andrew Olah hosted representatives from social compliance organizations to discuss the need for corporate social responsibility standards in the denim supply chain.

While moves within the industry, like Reformation’s and Everlane’s willingness to share supplier information with the end consumer, are helping to move the needle toward transparency, companies within the supply chain remain wary of the motives behind social compliance certifications. Some argue it’s an added cost, while others boast about their certifications.

“Trust is a business accelerator,” said Robin Cornelius, founder of Product DNA, a Swiss company that specializes in supply chain traceability and promoting transparency with regard to consumer goods. “We should be able to trust each other.”

And all parts of the supply chain, from fiber to brand, should be open to discussing social compliance.

The reason Olah said Kingpins decided to require exhibitors to meet a social compliance standard by 2020 came as the result of basic conversations that take place at garment shows. At these shows, Olah said, most major U.S. brands won’t even entertain the idea of working with a garment factory unless it can prove it’s socially compliant.

When it comes to denim, however, he said, “Everybody walks around to every single company and doesn’t even ask the question. And I find that really bizarre.”

For denim mills, Edwin Koster, a senior advisor and lead trainer for Social Accountability International (SAI), said certification is still a new process. Certification is being led by first tier companies in the supply chain and is trickling down to dye houses and spinners, he said. “They put a lot of efforts in making their supply chain transparent,” Koster explained, adding that the next step for suppliers will be more certification around social issues.

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Established in 1997, SAI’s SA8000 Standard measures eight elements important to social accountability in workplaces, including child labor, discrimination, work hour, safety and more. More than 4,100 companies are certified across 56 industries.

The benefits to the certification, Koster added, range from better workflow to higher employee retention and better customer relations. The SA8000 Standard also serves as a framework for continual improvement, as no certification is a be-all and end-all.

“Factories and mills that look at [certification] as an event with a finish line are thinking about it wrong,” said Avedis Seferian, president and CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP). “There is no point when you are done. It is always an ongoing process.”

WRAP’s primary purpose is its three-level certification program based on 12 principles related to compensation, security, forced labor and environment. The non-profit also operates a social compliance training program to help companies maintain standards. The program is the largest of its kind in the apparel, footwear and sewn products sector and is accepted by over 100 buyers, brands and retailers around the world—proof, Seferian said, that certification is gradually becoming de rigueur.

“Certifications are standard practice now, but that wasn’t true 30 years ago,” he said. “And it wasn’t because 30 years ago, for some reason, that factories were nicer. It was always the case that we had bad protocols.”

Rather, Seferian said the internet helped pull back the curtain on bad business.

“The world became a much more connected…and transparency started to become easier to impose and require,” he said. “To be blunt, bad news spreads further faster.”

Social compliance certification also adds a level of clout to a business’ portfolio, and in the case of Candiani Denim, it helped legitimized the protocols the company had in place.

The Italian denim mill was SA8000 certified in 2010. Owner Alberto Candiani recalled a conversation with his father about whether the mill needed the certification. Located inside a nature reserve, Candiani Denim historically sought the most sustainable processes and had a positive relationship with employees. His father questioned what impact a certificate would have.

“I have to go be honest with you, it was about ego,” Candiani said. “SA8000 is prestigious. It is certifiable prestige.”