FAIR WEAR WORKS is a project of the Global Nature Fund to support companies in the sustainable procurement of textiles. This guest article is written by Tim Stoffel, Global Nature Fund.

Sustainable clothing was hard to find and not always fashionable just a few years ago. The selection was small and the price often high. Today, there is a wide range of affordable garments that are made with social and environmental criteria in mind. A raising number of brands pay increasing attention to social and ecological aspects in their value chains. Sustainable clothing has even become part of the assortment of large textile chains or even supermarkets.

Specialty textiles have long been a challenge for sustainability criteria in production. In the meantime, they are available on the market.

However, this trend has not only made life easier for end consumers who want to shop responsible. The range of work wear or flat linen, e.g. hand and table towels for the catering industry or bed linen for hotels, has also adapted to the increasing demand. More and more special clothing, such as personal protective equipment in the form of work trousers and jackets, e.g. with high-visibility protection, takes account of minimum ecological and social standards in the production process.

The special feature of purchasing by companies is that they often buy hundreds or even thousands of items of clothing in one go and repeatedly in order to equip their employees. Hotel chains need a continuous supply of bed linen and towels. As such, they represent an important part of the demand. With an annual turnover of over one billion euros in Germany, work wear in particular is an important lever for creating more sustainable production conditions.

Textiles are a “sensitive product group”

It is therefore high time for rethinking corporate purchasing. It has been known for a long time that social and ecological problems occur along the international supply chains in the production of our T-shirts, jeans and shirts, but of course also of work wear. A look at the label of the clothing reveals where the product was tailored: Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia or India are examples of countries where the clothes are sewn for the rest of the world. However, these stations reflect only a small part of the journey of a garment. Indeed, we rarely learn whether the cotton was grown by a farmer in Burkina Faso, the U.S. or China, and in which factory the synthetic fibers were produced. The yarn is spun and the fabrics are dyed or bleached again in other countries. Therefore, the journey of a garment is complex and the conditions under which it was made are hard to trace.

In these extensive value chains, social injustices occur, for example, especially in garment making. There is often forced overtime with workdays of 16 to 18 hours, wages that barely allow workers to survive, lack of or short fixed-term employment contracts, and gender-based violence. Child labor or forced labor also occur in some cases, especially in cotton farming or when subcontractors are involved. In addition, freedom of association is disregarded. If there are unions, there are reports of discrimination, threats, dismissals or even mistreatment of members. That these problems explicitly also affect the production of work wear was shown by investigations of the organization FEMNET in Tunisia and India.

In addition, there are ecological problems: The textile industry is the fifth largest emitter of climate gases, causing more emissions annually than all shipping and all flights combined. The emissions are mainly caused by the enormous amount of energy used in the individual manufacturing steps and in the production of chemical substances, mostly in countries where energy is mainly obtained from coal. Added to this is the immense amount of environmentally harmful and unhealthy chemicals used in the various production steps. Conventional cotton cultivation alone accounts for 25 per cent of global insecticide consumption. Lack of controls on the discharge of wastewater into ecosystems, cotton cultivation in monocultures, the use of hazardous chemicals that cause harm to living creatures, workers and residents are also part of the problem.

The solution: sustainable purchasing

Responsible purchasing that pays attention to compliance with minimum social and environmental standards can counteract the problems described above. Brand companies and manufacturers are thus urged to take their due diligence obligations seriously and implement processes to check minimum standards in their supply chains and work towards improvements if problems arise.

However, what criteria should businesses look for when purchasing and how do you check their implementation? There is no need to build up detailed expertise in sustainability for either corporate or private purchasing. For the first steps towards more sustainable purchasing, a number of quality labels and initiatives provide credible, transparent and traceable guidance on compliance with these criteria. Online platforms such as www.siegelklarheit.de are suitable for an initial overview. For a deeper insight and support in effective sustainable textile purchasing, there are consulting opportunities for companies. The Global Nature Fund and FEMNET have launched the FAIR WEAR WORKS project to support companies in the sustainable procurement of textiles. This is because targeted purchasing strategies can positively influence working conditions along global supply chains and reduce negative impacts on the environment. This way, companies in particular can contribute to more sustainable consumption and production methods.

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