After working more than 20 years to help position human rights at the heart of the global economic system, I believe that solving key problems in the garment industry can help unlock solutions across the global economy.
Garments – we all wear them. We invest our money, time, and identity in what we wear, or we make a statement by investing very little. Our clothes are a means of communicating who we are – and what we stand for.
This point was made vivid to me when working in Guatemala City in 2000 with COVERCO, a local NGO advancing rule of law through accountability in garment factories. Among its staff were young university graduates, mostly sociologists, some whose parents or relatives worked in garment factories themselves. When COVERCO staff made unannounced visits to audit such factories, they consciously wore simple, and often traditional, clothing in contrast to other auditors in suits who ‘helicoptered in’ to police conditions. Their clothing spoke a language of solidarity. It was a sign of what they stood for.
I suspect the fact that clothing is so closely linked to identity and belonging is a large part of why the garment industry remains front and centre in our conversations about the impact and reach of globalised production and consumption. Today’s garment industry – with its sprawling supply chains, labour- and natural- resource intensive production, and nearly untraceable accountability – represents the ultimate challenge in our work to check the adverse effects of globalisation and ‘development’.
Today we need to find practical solutions to the problem of a lack of accountability evident in the industry’s transition from domestic to global production. In the last century, our predecessors created regulatory and industrial relations systems – centred around trade unions and legislation – to bring accountability to domestically-based industries built on poverty and resource degradation. While at times incomplete or ineffective, these systems without a doubt enhanced the lives of garment workers in very real ways. They offered protection to affected communities and their environments. It is now for us to muster similar levels of vision, solidarity and courage to build new systems of accountability that can attend to ever-evolving global industry structures.
A great deal of my work in recent years has focused living wages in the global garment industry. Wages are a laboratory to test mechanisms for assigning financial responsibility for real labour (and environmental) costs, even if the actors who bear (partial) responsibility have distanced themselves from the point of production. Many global brands produce at – and constantly shift production among – a myriad of factories they do not own. Our work at FWF to re-introduce to the garment industry the practice of pricing manufacturing costs according to the time required to manufacture a product (what we call Labour Minute Costing) represents great potential for building more accountability in the industry.
Envisioning accountability in very concrete and practical ways in a very unaccountable industry is one key thread in this project. Where it moves from here will be largely influenced by the massive environmental and technical shifts underway at this moment in history. Experts predict massive changes in automation and technological modes of production in the next decade, which will impact who makes our garments and where. The implications of such changes – for workers and for our planet – cannot be understated. The moment could not be more urgent. I am particularly concerned for and inspired by the next generation, who are calling on us all to take emergency action on climate change to prevent the irreversible and catastrophic changes our world is hurtling towards.
Everyone in this industry has an obligation to our children – if no one else – to take unprecedented action to bring more accountability to an industry that may allow us to express ourselves in what we wear but also profits from the exploitation of human lives and natural resources. This Threads project seeks to empower us in upholding this obligation by consolidating innovative, creative thinking from the tech sector to civil society. My hope is it helps us grasp what the future has in store for an industry with profound implications and lessons that apply far beyond garments.
Anne Lally is an independent consultant with expertise in human rights, global supply chains, and living wages. After working to advance human rights at the United Nations in Geneva and New York, she has spent two decades with NGOs and multi-stakeholder initiatives in various countries, mostly focused on workers’ human rights in the garment industry. Anne has also directed a national fair trade organisation in the US and helped (re)build local food systems in the UK. She holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University and is based in Cambridge, UK.