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American Fashion Giants Commit to Aiding Female Supply-Chain Workers

This week, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency hosted senior government officials, industry executives and other trade partners in Hanoi, Vietnam for the third annual Indo-Pacific Business Forum. While there, members of the fashion community made moves to protect the rights and wellbeing of women in their supply chains.

On Wednesday, during the virtual conference, Bonnie Glick, the deputy administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), announced the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding with a cadre of American apparel, footwear and retail companies, as well as industry associations, to provide relief to female workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Retailers and brands including Gap Inc., Carter’s, Global Brands Group, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Tapestry, Target, VF Corp. and Walmart, along with trade associations including the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, agreed to the terms of the MOU. Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the AAFA, signed on behalf of the consortium of companies and trade groups, while deputy administrator Glick signed on behalf of USAID.

The Covid crisis has had a massive impact on the livelihoods of garment workers, who have faced job losses due to supply chain disruptions, halted trade and canceled orders from brands across the globe—including some, like Gap, which signed the MOU. Asia represents one of the most affected markets, with clothing, shoes and accessories being a top export for the region, and many factories and suppliers left in the lurch by international partners.

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In the U.S. and around the world, widespread stay-at-home orders and economic uncertainty have constrained consumer spending and decimated retail. Businesses were forced to shutter earlier this year, and many are operating at limited capacity months later. Downstream, these impacts have been felt by those responsible for bringing goods to market, and once-bustling supply chains have, in some cases, ground to a halt amid a dearth of demand.

The new memorandum establishes the intent of the consortium and USAID to come together over the course of the next year and work toward easing the burden on workers across the region. By collaborating with local organizations and partners, the groups aim to bolster the resilience of these supply chains, protect the rights and welfare of workers, and empower women.

Vietnam, whose government supported the event’s programming, is a strong and growing trade partner for the U.S. apparel and footwear sector, rivaled perhaps only by China in terms of capabilities and infrastructure.

Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that no matter the outcome of next week’s high-stakes election, his organization would “continue to be an advocate for growth business policies to support economic growth and prosperity,” as the Indo-Pacific region will “remain vitally important to the United States economy.”

“I’m confident that no matter who wins the election, that the U.S. government will focus its attention on strengthening and deepening ties” to the region, he said, by creating greater market access through bilateral free trade agreements.

New trade strategy between the U.S. and Vietnam should be an utmost priority as the U.S. works to strengthen its ties to allied markets and reduce its dependence on China. “It is well past time” that the federal government engages in creating a successful version of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, Brilliant said, the first version of which the U.S. withdrew from in 2016 under the direction of President Trump. Brilliant expressed an eagerness to see the U.S. engage in such a deal, which was designed to lower barriers to trade—like tariffs—and spur U.S. engagement and investment in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The United States is not a party to many of the negotiations going on right now in the region,” he said, adding that standing on the sidelines puts U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage. American corporations and brands, he said, need to be “in the game.”

“The fact is, when we stand up on trade and when we engage, we help elevate the populations in these countries and bring new opportunities,” he said. “We bring the best of our management, our technology and know-how.”

“When we don’t get engaged,” Brilliant added, “the United States falls behind.”