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Uncovering Fashion’s ‘Hidden Supply Chains’ is a Conspicuous Challenge

Clothing manufacturing isn’t exactly known for its transparency. Some portions of it are so opaque, however, they’re virtually invisible.

Existing outside the factory walls, these “hidden supply chains” are the terra incognitas of the apparel industry: unlicensed, unregulated and rife with child labor and other human-rights abuses.

Orders that start out at a traditional factory might end up being subcontracted to one smaller production unit, then another, before “ultimately ending up inside the homes in communities that specialize in things like beading and tassel making,” Nina Smith, CEO of Goodweave International, said at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark this month. “Once that work leaves the factory, it’s hidden from view. The workers involved in that production aren’t protected under corporate codes of conduct, factory audits and even national law.”

These informal workplaces are especially prevalent in India, the world’s second-largest manufacturer and exporter of fashion garments after China. In “Tainted Garments,” a report published by the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California, Berkeley this past January, slavery expert Siddharth Kara revealed that 85 percent of the 1,452 home-based workers he interviewed worked exclusively in supply chains for the export of apparel to the United States and the European Union. Predominantly women and girls from historically oppressed ethnic communities, most of them toiled for as little as 15 cents per hour in conditions that Indian law defines as forced labor.

India is far from the only country that grapples with this problem, however.

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Forced labor is “in every country, in every supply chain,” said the actress Julia Ormond, whose Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET) helped midwife the watershed Transparency in Supply Chains Act into law in California in 2012. “And I tell corporate [leaders], if you aren’t finding it, it’s because you’re not looking for it.”

It’s important to understand that this isn’t a numbers game but “real lives, real people,” said Anindit Roy Chowdhury, program manager for labor rights at C&A Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Belgium- and Germany-based retailer. “Sometimes we don’t get to see them simply because we’re only looking at the numbers: somebody says 40 million, someone says 10 million, someone says 8 million. But even if it’s eight, these are eight lives.”

While remediation is important, it’s important for philanthropists to engage in advocacy work, too, Chowdhury noted.

“The magnitude of the problem is so much, so you can actually continuously do remediation but the problem is going to shift from one place to another, so what needs to be done is to look at the issue of policy building and policy dialogue. And also enforcing policies that exist,” he said. “We need to hold governments to account in saying, ‘Don’t just create these opportunities for businesses to flourish. But also make sure that there is human rights due diligence that ensures that the children of men and women who are working thrive.’”

Few parents willingly turn their son or daughter over to child labor, said Smith, whose organization works to end child exploitation in the rug-making industry. Taking a recriminatory—or worse, paternalistic—tone is rarely helpful. She recounted visiting communities, for instance, where schools “literally weren’t working” and teachers often failed to show up.

“Instead of telling them [to do] something, we would ask them, ‘Why are your children working?’ or ‘What can we do to make [school] a positive proposition?’” she said. “We work with them to get the kids into school and support them to overcoming those various barriers, and we work with the local government to strengthen the schools and create accountability around what those schools are doing alongside the parents of that community.”

One thing Chowdhury is done with is excuses: from brands, from suppliers, even from consumers.

“In 2019, in the 21st century, to say we don’t know is not good enough,” he said. “With the tremendous technological evolution over the last 10 years, to say we still don’t know if a piece of clothing that anyone of us is wearing is actually made by child labor or not, it’s unacceptable.”

Acknowledging the shadows in the supply chain is the first step, Chowdhury said. The second? Investing in transparency.

“It just doesn’t happen naturally; you have to invest into the process,” he said. “You can’t just say that transparency costs money because that’s the least that you have to do.”