Experts urge greater apparel industry transparency

Whether improved transparency in clothing supply chains will be enough to guarantee a sustainable future for outsourcers in South Asia remains to be seen, but a conference staged in Sri Lanka last week heard plenty of calls for improved openness.

 

 

Indeed, Tom Smith, director of insight and planning of UK-based global supply chain advisors Sedex told the Sustainable Fashion Summit - South Asia 2013that buyers have an increasing and important duty to ensure responsible sourcing.

 

"We all know standards need improving and maintaining, and Bangladesh's Rana Plaza collapse in April is a good example for this rising need. Buyers should ask the supplier if the order is done right. Just asking that simple question can bring about a massive transformation, and can be the first step towards achieving greater transparency," he said.

 

He also stressed the need for big brands and retailers to become engaged in this process, giving such good practice a critical mass of support.

 

Nikhil Hirdaramani, international chair of the Sri Lanka Design Festival, the summit organiser, said Sri Lanka had helped lay the groundwork for such changes, recalling how the county in 2007 - then plagued by a long-running civil war - introduced its 'Garments without Guilt' scheme, involving an open adherence to adequate labour standards.

 

"Today what we launched so many years ago is being carried out on a global scale. Sri Lanka holds the benchmark for this concept, because we strongly believed in responsibility and transparency," noted Hirdaramani, also director of the Hirdaramani Group, one of Sri Lanka's largest apparel exporters.

 

"Sri Lanka is a role model in this concept and can be emulated by many," he noted, while calling for the introduction of a uniform international standard, which would enable consumers to tap information about a garment's production process.

 

"We need to have a standard that communicates to the consumer. Make everything simpler." He argued consumers are willing to spend more on quality production and invest in durability."

 

International inconsistencies

 

Such an international standard will not be developed easily, stressed Roshan Pieris, regional manager for supply chain assessment and sustainability at SGS, the global inspection, verification, testing and certification company.

 

She noted that inconsistencies in underlying labour laws and definitions were a problem, with some countries adopting local standards, and others adhering to ILO (International Labour Organization) conventions.

 

"We face various challenges, despite understanding the need to bring about a standard that is acceptable to all," she said.

 

Her company tries to square the resulting circles. "If one client wants us to do an audit on a garment factory using the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) code, then another client requests us to carry the audit using the BSCI [Business Social Compliance Initiative]...So there is so much conflict...as different clients require different audits using different standards," she noted.

 

Smith agreed: "We have a long way to go for a global standard. We are right now trying to drive everyone to help us achieve this target, but we still have a long way to get there."

 

The summit also drew attention to the Higg Index that helps apparel companies evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and product design choices.

 

Implementing audit advice

 

Smith also stressed that buyers and suppliers need to heed and implement advice highlighted in audit reports.

 

"Having an audit is not good enough, buyers and all other stakeholders need to follow up the action points from it. The recommendations must be implemented by both the supplier and buyer," he noted.

 

Smith also noted that following the April Bangladesh disaster, buyers had begun to act to promote building safety amongst suppliers. But work still needs to be done, notably on fire safety, which is a global risk for the industry.

 

In this regard, Pieris criticised an apparent lack of interest shown by the Sri Lankan apparel industry in storing chemicals safely.

 

Following the Rana Plaza collapse, Pakistan factory fires and the fertiliser chemical plant explosion in Texas, SGS invited a French apparel expert to Colombo to advise the local industry on safe chemical storage.

 

"We invited the entire industry in Sri Lanka for the presentation, but only around 40 people turned up for it. But it is important for the industry to take steps to prevent a disaster before it happens," she said.

 

That said, some of her Sri Lanka clients are taking a proactive approach to fire prevention: "Some are looking at electrical wiring; waste storage and other hazardous areas which could be potential risks factors and which have not been focused on much in the past."

 

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