Blog: Business and Human Rights

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July 23, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Binding Brands to Create Change

Posted by Christie Miedema, Campaign and Outreach Coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign

When the COVID19 pandemic hit, garment brands and retailers around the world cancelled their orders. What was to them a logical risk and cost reducing measure, meant destitution for millions of garment workers around the world. Public outcry over corporate behavior led a range of brands to quickly mend their ways. However, the question remains why public outcry was even needed. Brands have spent years promoting programs they claim guarantee protection for their workers. So why couldn’t they rely on those?

In the 1970s and 1980s garment brands started to outsource production abroad. This was a step that seemed to have only advantages: lower prices, lax labor regulation, less risk. Reduced to a mere client of garment factories elsewhere in the world, garment brands and retailers could wash their hands of any responsibility for workers – or so they thought.

Enter the rules, but set and monitored by whom?


Following a series of exposés in the 1990s documenting horrific conditions in sweatshops, brands took action to curate codes of conduct and imposed them on supplier factories. This progressed to the emergence of a social auditing industry to oversee suppliers’ compliance, as well as social compliance initiatives to synchronize and oversee these codes, often in the form of voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). This all prompts the question: given the tools brands have created to regulate working conditions in the garment industry, why are workers being left to suffer during the pandemic?

The answer lies within the mechanism of these voluntary MSIs. Behind the façade of battling exploitation, MSIs have become little more than a fig leaf for fashion; a tool enabling brands to dictate the rules, while shielding the industry against responsibility and criticism, rather than protecting the workers.

MSIs, which come in different shades of brand-friendliness and ambition, have certainly played a role in normalizing ideas of supply chain responsibility, as well as facilitating discussions between brands, unions, NGOs and other stakeholders. However, as a recent report on supply chain transparency published by the Transparency Pledge Coalition has shown, many MSIs are no longer taking the lead in moving the more unwilling brands towards stronger politics, but are instead surpassed left and right by members who voluntarily go beyond what the MSIs prescribe. Only one MSI was willing to take the challenge of the Transparency Pledge coalition to actually take the lead and make transparency a membership requirement. Another recent report shows that a “soft measure” such as due diligence reporting, remains wanting. And although MSIs’ complaint mechanisms still remain useful avenues for workers and labor rights activists to appeal to if a member brand is unresponsive to resolve a case of labor rights violations, which continues to be tried again and again, the same limitations apply: the outcome is not binding.

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