Corporate social responsibility in the fashion industry

Labour standards and corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the fashion industry have come under some scrutiny in recent times and with this article we’d like to take a deeper look at the skills and requirements that are in demand in this challenging industry.

With increasing globalisation, the apparel industry is now often dispersed geographically, with manufacturing, distribution and retail operations split across several different regions and countries. Global retailers work hard to ensure their global corporate standards for safety, labour, sustainability, quality of product and so forth, are adhered to and maintained throughout their supply chain. However, this is still a daily challenge.

In recent conversations with the regional director of a well known global retail corporation, he stressed the tough nature of the role of the labour standards professional: “The job is unique, containing elements of law, human resources, ethics, manufacturing, compliance and supply chain. Training is a minimum of three months irrespective of direct previous experience in order to ensure a rigorous and robust process according to our own company policies and practices.”

He goes on to say that: “The role of the Labour Standards Compliance Practitioner requires a number of different skill sets so that when we are recruiting we look more at the person than their qualifications. Integrity, resilience and communication skills are key to this role. It is a tough job to be out in the field on the factory floor three, four or five days a week.”

Not only are the operations of the company disparate, but they are also often operating under different national governance, cultural differences and language variations. Therefore any company standard which requires adherence across the global organisation must be rolled-out carefully and monitored regularly.  

“As is the case with any standard the success of the solution is dependent on the extent to which that standard is embraced across the organisation as a whole. It is of little value if CSR isn’t applied across the entire business,” says a technical manager, International Register of Certificated Auditors (IRCA).

When indentifying strong CSR and sustainability auditors we are looking for multifaceted individuals, with excellent sector experience, complimented by experience within government/public affairs, stakeholder engagement and/or generic auditing

Paul Gosling, Allen and York Specialist CSR Recruitment Consultancy MD

The IRCA is the world’s largest international auditor certification body providing valuable guidance and formal technical qualifications for auditors. Although there is no auditable standard for CSR, the IRCA can teach key performance techniques and allow for formal registration as a recognised certified auditor.

They also offer grounding for the development of ‘soft skills’ which are arguably just as important. In our understanding, it is often the auditor who has the ability to go beyond the legal checklist, who is approachable, empathetic, as well as investigative and who will achieve strong buy-in from their colleagues.

With regard to the skills companies are looking for in a CSR auditor, the IRCA state that the: “industry feedback we have consistently received is that the best and most valued assessors are those who have accumulated extensive sector experience before moving into an audit role. It is much more difficult, time consuming and expensive, to train up an auditor with generic audit skills to become a sector specialist.”

Paul Gosling, MD of Allen and York Specialist CSR Recruitment Consultancy, agrees: “When indentifying strong CSR and sustainability auditors we are looking for multifaceted individuals, with excellent sector experience, complimented by experience within government/public affairs, stakeholder engagement and/or generic auditing.  Currently we are experiencing an increased demand for CSR and Sustainability professionals within the apparel industry and we are always interested to engage with specialists across these disciplines.”

Well established brands such as Marks and Spencer have their well publicised Plan A, initiated by Mike Barry, head of Sustainable Business. Within the plan are at least 180 environmental and ethical commitments which are driving the company towards their aim to create “the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015”.

Pillar 6 of Plan A is entitled, “Fair Partner - General Merchandise Living Wage”, which pledges to “implement a process to ensure our clothing suppliers are able to pay workers a fair living wage in the least developed countries we source from, “starting with Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka by 2015. We will achieve this by ensuring that the cost prices we pay to our suppliers are adequate to pay a fair living wage and by rolling out our ethical model factory programme to ensure the cost price benefits are paid to workers”.

Gap Inc has also strengthened their CSR commitment by developing a partnership with the International Labour Organisation Better Work Program, which supports improved labour standards and laws. The scheme which was launched in Cambodia in 2004 and specifically targeted the retail industry, has now expanded to Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Lesotho, Nicaragua and Vietnam.

New companies are also emerging; Rob Broggi, CEO and founding partner of Industrial Revolution II (IRII) has joined forces with the actor Matt Damon to launch IRII, an ethical garment factory, which aims to bring high-end apparel, with a high level of social responsibility to Haiti.

IRII, which was launched in September 2013, was “born out of a frustration”, Broggi states, “with the lack of efficacy of traditional philanthropic and international aid programmes in Haiti, and a desire to create sustainable change through economic development and higher-value job creation.” 

Consumers have the ability to demand that the brands they buy make more responsible sourcing decisions, using their collective wallet as both the carrot and the stick. There is a lot of power at the top of the chain and as brands increasingly realise that consumers care deeply about this issue, real change will begin to happen

Rob Broggi, IRII CEO and founding partner

He believes that “tougher regulations and more stringent factory audits are not enough” and is looking to consumers to make informed choices on the high street. “Consumers have the ability to demand that the brands they buy make more responsible sourcing decisions, using their collective wallet as both the carrot and the stick. There is a lot of power at the top of the chain and as brands increasingly realise that consumers care deeply about this issue, real change will begin to happen.”

Sustainability and commercial longevity go hand-in-hand and it is also important for the CSR and sustainability profession to have a keen understanding of the way the business operates. “Commercial acumen is key to the mix of skills a corporate employer will be looking for, within the apparel and wider retail sector. It is vital for sustainability to be joined up as part of the wider commercial strategy,” says Gosling.

CSR and social compliance auditing is still evolving. The complexities are better understood, but many of the issues are still there. It should to be the objective of each reputable brand and/or buyer to get buy-in from their stakeholders to enforce compliance throughout their supply chains.

“Overall there is more momentum, more resources and more collaboration, with increased sharing of information within the industry, which is positive. What more could we do to drive this forward? We need better business alignment, more worker empowerment, and governments that proactively enforce their local laws,” adds the regional director from the global retail corporation.

“CSR must apply across all sites and be border agnostic,” emphasises the IRCA technical manager.

At Allen and York Recruitment, we are seeing an increase demand for sustainability and CSR professionals to work within the apparel industry. Forward thinking brands are looking, not only to strengthen their health and safety teams, but also to invest in corporate social responsibility strategies to ensure their companies offer a fair wage and safe working conditions within their operations around the world.

Miriam Heale is the marketing manager at Allen and York Sustainable Recruitment. This post originally appeared here.

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