International Cooperation and Development

A stitch in time – improving working conditions in the garment sector supply chains

News 26 June 2019 Brussels

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The European Commission has developed a set of policies and actions to address decent work and reduce vulnerabilities, making value chains in the garment sector more sustainable – we are now seeing this broad initiative come to fruition.

The garment value chain is one of the most complex production models globally with significant downstream, upstream and related activities and involves different industries such as cotton, textile, or footwear. It provides employment opportunities to millions of workers, especially young women. However, particularly in low-income production countries, the industry is often characterised by vulnerable employment and persistent structural problems linked to the fragmentation of labour-intensive, low-skill production across multiple factories and international locations. 

The Commission’s on-going work on sustainable garment value chains is therefore a sector-specific example of implementing core visions of the 2030 Agenda, including SDG 8 on decent work and economic work and SDG 5 on gender equality. It seeks to ensure improvements in terms of labour conditions and human rights, including a strong gender equality focus (75 % of all garment workers are women), and environmental impacts, such as an efficient use of resources and sustainable production and consumption patterns.

A Commission Staff Working Document, Sustainable garment value chains through EU development action, presents a set of actions to ensure an effective response to capacity building, awareness raising and technical assistance needs, with a view to capitalising on opportunities and addressing key challenges in the garment sector. The document notes, however, that sustainable improvements cannot be achieved without the commitment of governments to set the appropriate framework conditions (i.e. accession and adherence to the relevant international agreements) and without the strong engagement of business.

This issue is intrinsically linked to the European market, and European consumers have demonstrated that that they care how the products they buy are produced, as the Special Eurobarometer: EU citizens and development cooperation – 2018 has shown. The survey found that more than half of EU citizens agree that individuals can play a role in tackling poverty in developing countries and 21 % make ethical choices when they shop for groceries, clothes and so on. While 80 % of EU citizens think private companies should have an important role in the sustainable development of developing countries.   

Tackling the problems

An example of an initiative being supported by the European Union is the ILO implemented, Vision Zero Fund, which is aiming to prevent work-related deaths, injuries and diseases in global supply chains. The Vision Zero Fund’s main objective is to increase collective public and private action aimed at fostering and enhancing concrete occupational safety and health (OSH) prevention activities in businesses, operating in low- and middle-income countries. Read more about the Vision Zero Fund here.     

Another project has recently been launched that seeks to halt child labour in cotton production focusing on West Africa and Pakistan. Clear Cotton is a four-year project being implemented by the ILO and FAO and supported by the EU. You can find more information about Clear Cotton on the ILO website here

Recently five European Union funded projects got under way that focus on increasing knowledge, awareness, transparency and traceability for responsible international value chains, from the production to the consumer, in the cotton and garment sectors, and will run for at least three years:

  • SMART TaG - Sustainability, More Consumer Awareness, Responsibility and Transparency in the Textile and Garment Sectors, implemented by Sequa, across Belgium, France, Germany, Myanmar and Netherlands. Find a presentation on the project here.
  • Bottom UP! Promoting a sustainable cotton & garment value chain from Ethiopian cotton to European consumers, implemented by Stichting Solidaridad Nederland, across Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany and Netherlands. Find a presentation on the project here.
  • Filling the gap: Achieving living wages through improved transparency, implemented by the Clean Clothes Campaign, across Austria, Belgium, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Sweden. Find a presentation on the project here.
  • Hidden Homeworkers - Improving Transparency and Traceability to Improve Working Conditions of Homeworkers in Apparel and Footwear Chains, implemented by Traidcraft Exchange, across India, Nepal and Pakistan. Find a presentation on the project here.
  • Towards Mutual Buyer-Supplier Collaboration: Supplier Capacity & Better Buying Platform, implemented by Social Accountability International, across Bangladesh. Find a presentation on the project here.

Watch the video: ‘EU engagement towards sustainable garment value chains: Tracing a T-shirt from cotton field to shelf’ that sheds light on how our clothes are made here and the video ‘Ethical is Fabulous’ from the External Investment Plan on promoting sustainable value chains here.

Analysing transparency and traceability in the garment value chain

Transparency and traceability are common expressions as businesses talk about what they do. But what do they mean in practice in the context of the global garment industry? How much do companies know about those supply chains and the products they sell (traceability)? And how much are they willing to tell consumers and others about the risks and problems they face (transparency)?

A European Commission 'Study on Background Analysis on Transparency and Traceability in the Garment Value Chain' explores these questions and the ideas and tools that can turn the challenge of transparency into new opportunities for developing a reliable garment industry, where social and environmental standards are being respected.