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Why Textile Exchange is Taking Another Crack at Human Rights Criteria

Textile Exchange is poring over the feedback it received about its draft human rights criteria, which the sustainability trade association is in the process of rejiggering for the next version of its Preferred Fiber and Materials Matrix, or PFMM, which is due sometime in the third quarter.

It’s pretty impressed by the quality of the comments, said Sam Pettifer, senior manager of Climate+ impact tools. Right now, the organization is still “digesting” this information, though it will have more to say soon.

The existing human rights component of the PFMM, which helps companies make environmentally and socially sounder sourcing decisions by supplying information about the apparel industry’s most commonly used materials, was based on criteria laid out by the World Wildlife Fund’s Certification Assessment Tool. With Textile Exchange now poised to bring the PFMM methodology “fully in-house,” it seeks to update its methodology in the area as well, allowing brands to better develop strategies for human rights due diligence as it relates to the upstream production tiers of the textile supply chain while supporting the more “holistic view of impact” that is the organization’s LCA+ approach.

“What we wanted to do is basically carve out that human rights piece and really dig in and make it even more robust,” said Beth Jensen, Climate+ director at Textile Exchange. “We’ve always recognized the interdependency of human rights issues with environmental issues. We talk about our Climate+ strategy being not just climate, but other interdependent impact areas.”

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As such, human rights is just one of eight impact areas in the overall PFMM, the others being climate, water, chemicals, biodiversity, land, resource use and waste, and animal welfare. Though the use of the matrix isn’t mandatory for members, which include Adidas, Birla Cellulose, H&M Group and other industry headliners, the group has been inundated by requests about how they can navigate the landscape of certifications, standards and requirements in “some sort of consistent way” that provides a “direction of travel” toward beneficial impact, Jensen said.

Human rights, she noted, are fundamental to a global fiber materials production model that can “serve positive impacts on the planet—and its people, really.” The PFMM’s draft human rights criteria, which Textile Exchange developed with London-based human rights and business consultancy Ergon Associates, will measure the strength of different standard systems that promote respect for human rights.

“We believe that the PFFM can really be a useful tool to assess those standard systems requirements across human rights due diligence, management systems and monitoring [while] encouraging greater action on this topic,” Jensen said. “What we wanted to do is really make sure that the content is fit for the very latest thinking on human rights and what is good practice. We want to make sure that it incentivizes standard systems to improve performance across impact areas, particularly, in this case, human rights issues.”

The intent of the tool isn’t to call out any specific standard system, she said. Neither does it advocate the use of certification in lieu of direct engagement with rightsholders at different production stages.

“It’s really more to say, ‘How can we come to some sort of alignment on what a shared set of criteria should look like regarding all of these different impact areas?’” Jensen said. “We hope that it’s helpful also to the standard systems to have that shared reference point, to say ‘Huh, maybe I’m not addressing human rights in the most robust way that we could be within this particular standard system.’”

Underpinned by international human rights norms, including the United Nations Guiding Principles, the International Bill of Human Rights and the International Labor Organization’s Core Conventions, the revised tool will weigh standard systems’ performance on human rights across a dozen indicators: wages and working conditions, forced labor, child labor, freedom of association, occupational health and safety, livelihoods/producer income, indigenous peoples rights, land rights, right to democratic participation, enabling environment for human rights realization, grievance and remedy, and non-discrimination and prevention of gender-based violence and harassment.

Each of the indicators is in turn assessed across four “criteria bands” that measure the standards’ content; their implementation, assurance and monitoring; any ongoing stakeholder participation and the push for continuous improvement; and evidence of due diligence and positive impacts for rightsholders. Each four-point band is allocated up to 25 percentage points, resulting in a maximum possible score of 100 percent.

Brett Dodge, lead senior consultant of human rights and agrifood at Ergon Associates, said the standard systems’ activities and implementation methods tend to be more relevant than the content of the standards themselves—and the tool aims to reflect that.

“While having stricter criteria can make a difference, best practice is more often demonstrated through strategies to drive change through empowering workers, engaging rightsholders and supporting producers towards better practices,” Dodge said. Equally important is having a risk-based approach, where program activities vary based on awareness of concrete human rights risks. Both companies and expert stakeholders consider this a “core expectation” of standard systems working to achieve human rights, he said.

Limitations abound when it comes to the role of standards systems within a “broader package of activities” undertaken by businesses towards respecting human rights, Dodge noted, adding that even standards with the strongest program content on human rights still have “some ways to go.”

“Human rights cannot be outsourced and therefore it would not be appropriate to calibrate the tool to reflect all steps a company would need to take to respect human rights, but we do know that standards have a role to play—the question is therefore how large of a role,” he said. “The tool had to build in a consideration of what the most ambitious, yet realistic best practice scenario would be in respect of a standard working to achieve respect for human rights, even though no standard system is yet achieving this or serves as a model.”

Jensen said that Textile Exchange just wants to encourage improved practices, “raising the bar for performance in terms of what standard systems can achieve and move the industry along this continuum of preferred fibers and materials.”

Though human rights are far from a “new area of thought” for the organization, she admitted that it was a “little hesitant” about making bigger inroads in a space that other civil society groups were already “deeply engaged in” and “deeply knowledgable about.”

“So we’ve always really tried to partner with those organizations and make sure we’re keeping an eye on those types of considerations,” she said. “But what we recognized, I would say a few years ago, is that we really need to put even a greater focus on this area even though it’s not our core focus area, per se. It’s so important. It’s so intertwined with all of the environmental impact areas that we just want to make sure that we have a really solid view [of] all of this.”

Siobhan Cullen, Textile Exchange’s human rights strategist, said that the last thing the trade group wants to do is sell a standard as the solution to human rights abuses across the global supply chain. Figuring out that balance, especially in the absence of a scalable “perfect” solution to human rights, can be a challenge, she said.

“What we do want to make sure is that we can try and strengthen this kind of one tool within a brand’s toolkit, a supplier’s toolkit, whatever it is, to meet growing due diligence requirements and legislation,” Cullen said. She said that Textile Exchange recently conducted an internal landscape assessment of different preferred fibers, which has helped shape the new criteria.

“We think it’s really important that we strengthen this as much as we can since there are so many programs doing really good work on the ground,” she added.

Jensen said that Textile Exchange’s hope is that by broadening the PFFM’s scope, standards frameworks can embark on a “shared journey” toward enabling systems that promote a “holistic view of impact,” and in so doing reduce the number of unintended consequences or trade-offs that might occur from only homing in on certain areas.

“And also just promoting this LCA+ point of view that we have as Textile Exchange, which is that, yes, quantitative LCA data is one really helpful input, but it’s not the only input,” she said. “A lot of these impact areas just [aren’t] covered by LCA methodology today, so how can we start to understand that and get our arms around that in a consistent way across the industry?”