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Ethical Sourcing Is the Thorn in Fashion’s Side, Experts Say

Fashion’s worries in the age of the coronavirus may be vast, but the ethics surrounding footwear and apparel sourcing have become a clear cause for consternation in recent months.

At Fashiondex’s Fashion and Sustainability Summit on Thursday, industry experts gathered for a conversation about how the sector can ensure socially compliant practices across its supply chains. It turns out to be a taller order than one might think.

According to Avedis Seferian, president and CEO of factory certification program Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), “demystifying” the complicated systems that make up today’s footwear and apparel supply chains has become an increasingly difficult task.

“You have to understand that the primary mode of making stuff in the branded world has shifted away from the post-war years,” he said. Where brands used to produce their goods in facilities they owned and operated, “they’ve moved to a much more outsourcing-focused model today.”

Brands “don’t have the degree of visibility into those production facilities they used to have back then,” Seferian said, “but they are still responsible for making sure that the working conditions in those facilities are meeting the generally accepted standards that they want to see in their supply chains.”

These circumstances make it incredibly important that companies do their due diligence by engaging with third-party auditing bodies like WRAP, he argued. The organization analyzes factories based on 12 principles, including the prohibition of forced labor, child labor, abuse and harassment, compliance with local laws regarding workplace regulations, compensation, benefits, hours of work, health and safety and more.

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Those “top-level descriptors” skim the surface of what WRAP looks for during an audit, Seferian said. In reality, auditors are not only taking in factory conditions on the day of the inspection, but helping to ensure that there are management systems in place to ensure that favorable conditions and practices persist long after prying eyes have left the scene.

“If they are indeed meeting standards, we are able to validate that certify that,” Seferian said. The organization’s verification system has become a way for factories to show brands and other organizations that they are compliant, and in turn to help companies find supply-chain partners that adhere to their values.

WRAP received over 3,000 applications from factories in 2019, and Seferian said that number is growing. Throughout the first three quarters of 2020, the organization has already received applications from nearly 2,700 factories—employing about 2.7 million workers in 41 countries—to be audited.

Rather than working with existing factories, the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) connects artisans in remote, underserved regions like Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Haiti, Kenya, Mali, Tajikistan, Uganda and Uzbekistan with global lifestyle brands, giving them the opportunity to showcase their skills and creations.

The group considers itself a supply chain made up of artisans from marginalized communities, says EFI chief technical adviser Simone Cipriani. EFI uses its own resources on a country-by-country basis to coordinate the work of large teams of makers for global brands. “Normally, the social enterprise belongs to these cooperatives of artisans or to some local impact investors and is co-managed by us” until those groups have the confidence and resources to strike out on their own, he said.

“The first social enterprise we created 10 years ago is now an independent company in in Kenya,” he added.

But EFI also believes in championing the unique design talents of its members, and has developed mentorship programs to bolster their success. “We have an accelerator for new designers [and] we are mentoring now six African brands,” Cipriani said.

The group has historically hosted a talent show showcasing the work of African designers. The program began in Uganda and has spread to the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. “We nurture talent and creativity from the places where we are,” he added.

Now, EFI is working to make inroads for these designers in the arts and entertainment industries. The group plans to produce a theatrical production that employs the skill sets of all artisans in EFI’s global purview, and has been working with directors across the world on plays and even television projects to elevate their work.

“By bringing together creative talents and manufacturing in extremely marginalized communities, we recreate those linkages of collaboration that regenerate the social capital of the societies where we work,” Cipriani said.

Meanwhile, Ethical & Sustainable Sourcing works to connect brands across North America and Europe with reputable sourcing partners in Bangladesh and Asia, says founding CEO Fatima Anwar. While her work heavily focuses on factories’ environmental impact, the ethics surrounding workers’ rights spurred her passion for the industry.

“We are essentially ensuring that workers are safe, they have a voice, they have the rights to unionize and they have great working facilities,” Anwar said, among other “tertiary benefits” that help the surrounding communities. The factories that Ethical & Sustainable Sourcing partners with can “easily” house 3,000 to 8,000 workers, she said, underscoring the urgent need for oversight and mindful management.

“So it sort of becomes my job to create these bridges and linkages between the North American clients as well as manufacturers in all these different parts of the world,” she said, and to provide insights into  local cultures, governmental compliance and safety measures.

She also has a checklist of baseline expectations from factories that include health, safety and social guidelines—especially the right of workers to gather and collectively express their desires. While “nothing really beats that one-on-one, face-to-face with the management, as well as with the team on the ground,” Anwar also relies on certifications like WRAP’s in order to vet factories for her brand partners.

Throughout her work facilitating these relationships, Anwar discovered the dearth of information about supply-chain compliance issues. She decided to tackle the issue by discussing the challenges and digging into the topic through her podcast, “Straight from the Source.”

“The goal is really to demystify supply chains and bring in really amazing experts,” she said, “from whom not only I have learned—but hopefully our listeners can learn, too, and take that step towards better business practices.”