Sustainable textile production in Bangladesh – what duty of care is called for?

07.06.2017
Textilproduktion geht oft mit äußerst prekären Bedingungen einher

Since the major accident at the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh in 2013 in which more than 1,100 people died, steps have been taken to improve the safety of workers in the country’s textile industry. For example, European manufacturers, trade unions and non-governmental organisations have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which seeks to impose higher health and safety standards. Nevertheless, the Oeko-Institut believes that the present initiatives and declarations of commitment do not do enough to uphold the rights of textile workers and ensure their safety, in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Two case studies conducted by a research team at the Oeko-Institut consider what measures can enhance labour and environmental standards in the textile industry in Bangladesh. Many companies have already adopted their own binding code of practice or joined schemes that commit their local suppliers to fair working conditions. The fire safety accord is a landmark: it bars suppliers that do not comply with the rules. Investment in fire safety measures is financed jointly via the Accord.

‘Higher standards cost money – whether for fire precautions, the reduction of overtime working or the treatment of sewage. How they can be financed in the long term has not been clarified,’ says Christoph Brunn, co-author of the two case studies. Without appropriate clarification, the major fashion chains pass the costs on to their suppliers. ‘This steps up the pressure on suppliers even more, which impacts adversely on health and safety precautions.'

Not considered: suppliers of suppliers

The Oeko-Institut’s researchers also criticise the fact that the present rules relate almost exclusively to suppliers with direct contractual relationships with the international companies. However, much of the production – estimates put the figure at between 30 and 50 per cent – is carried out by factories that are not officially registered. This means that at least a third of textile production in Bangladesh is practically exempt from rules on labour conditions, health and environmental standards and takes place under highly questionable conditions.

‘The efforts that have been made are a big step in the right direction. But they still affect too few manufacturers and too few workers,’ criticises Brunn. ‘To really improve the situation, companies and international and local policy-makers must collaborate more actively and come up with new solutions.’

Voluntary commitment and state regulation

The case studies have been produced as part of the three-year research project ‘Global Values’. The members of the research consortium, which is managed by Vienna University of Economics and Business, have been considering how globally active companies can contribute to achievement of the UN’s sustainability goals. The Oeko-Institut has drawn together a number of case studies and specific investigations and has concluded that voluntary commitments by companies are insufficient to ensure compliance with human and environmental safety standards.

It takes the view that instead states must adopt international agreements and statutory rules for multinationally operating companies to ensure that they act more sustainably throughout their entire value chain. ‘For example, corporate duties of care such as the voluntary commitments set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights should be made legally binding,’ says Franziska Wolff, a governance expert at the Oeko-Institut. A duty of care in relation to human rights can have environmental as well as social benefits, because environmental pollution often affects human health and thus infringes the right to health – and in extreme cases even the right to life.

Research results presented virtually

The project team is presenting the findings of ‘Global Value’ at a virtual conference from 12 to 14 June 2017. Of particular importance is the Global Value Toolkit that companies can use to improve their assessment of the impacts of their products and activities on sustainable development in the countries of the Global South. Interested participants can register for the online event free of charge at https://www.global-value.eu/toolkit/.

Details of the programme and registration for the Global Value Virtual Launch (12-14 June 2017)

Presentation ‘Improving governance for responsible business’ by Franziska Wolff, Oeko-Institut (for the GLOBAL VALUE Consortium), European Development Days 2017

Contacts at the Oeko-Institut

Franziska Wolff
Head of Division

Environmental Law & Governance
Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology), Berlin office
Phone: +49 30 405085-371
Email: f.wolff--at--oeko.de

Christoph Brunn
Deputy Head of Division

Environmental Law & Governance
Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology), Darmstadt Office
Phone: +49 6151 8191-128
Email: c.brunn--at--oeko.de

The Oeko-Institut is a leading independent European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for ways in which the vision of sustainable development can be realised globally, nationally and locally. It has offices in three cities in Germany: Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

The Oeko-Institut celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2017: http://40.oeko.de/

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Since the major accident at the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh in 2013 in which more than 1,100 people died, steps have been taken to improve the safety of workers in the country’s textile industry. For example, European manufacturers, trade unions and non-governmental organisations have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which seeks to impose higher health and safety standards. Nevertheless, the Oeko-Institut believes that the present initiatives and declarations of commitment do not do enough to uphold the rights of textile workers and ensure their safety, in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Two case studies conducted by a research team at the Oeko-Institut consider what measures can enhance labour and environmental standards in the textile industry in Bangladesh. Many companies have already adopted their own binding code of practice or joined schemes that commit their local suppliers to fair working conditions. The fire safety accord is a landmark: it bars suppliers that do not comply with the rules. Investment in fire safety measures is financed jointly via the Accord.

‘Higher standards cost money – whether for fire precautions, the reduction of overtime working or the treatment of sewage. How they can be financed in the long term has not been clarified,’ says Christoph Brunn, co-author of the two case studies. Without appropriate clarification, the major fashion chains pass the costs on to their suppliers. ‘This steps up the pressure on suppliers even more, which impacts adversely on health and safety precautions.'

Not considered: suppliers of suppliers

The Oeko-Institut’s researchers also criticise the fact that the present rules relate almost exclusively to suppliers with direct contractual relationships with the international companies. However, much of the production – estimates put the figure at between 30 and 50 per cent – is carried out by factories that are not officially registered. This means that at least a third of textile production in Bangladesh is practically exempt from rules on labour conditions, health and environmental standards and takes place under highly questionable conditions.

‘The efforts that have been made are a big step in the right direction. But they still affect too few manufacturers and too few workers,’ criticises Brunn. ‘To really improve the situation, companies and international and local policy-makers must collaborate more actively and come up with new solutions.’

Voluntary commitment and state regulation

The case studies have been produced as part of the three-year research project ‘Global Values’. The members of the research consortium, which is managed by Vienna University of Economics and Business, have been considering how globally active companies can contribute to achievement of the UN’s sustainability goals. The Oeko-Institut has drawn together a number of case studies and specific investigations and has concluded that voluntary commitments by companies are insufficient to ensure compliance with human and environmental safety standards.

It takes the view that instead states must adopt international agreements and statutory rules for multinationally operating companies to ensure that they act more sustainably throughout their entire value chain. ‘For example, corporate duties of care such as the voluntary commitments set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights should be made legally binding,’ says Franziska Wolff, a governance expert at the Oeko-Institut. A duty of care in relation to human rights can have environmental as well as social benefits, because environmental pollution often affects human health and thus infringes the right to health – and in extreme cases even the right to life.

Research results presented virtually

The project team is presenting the findings of ‘Global Value’ at a virtual conference from 12 to 14 June 2017. Of particular importance is the Global Value Toolkit that companies can use to improve their assessment of the impacts of their products and activities on sustainable development in the countries of the Global South. Interested participants can register for the online event free of charge at https://www.global-value.eu/toolkit/.

Details of the programme and registration for the Global Value Virtual Launch (12-14 June 2017)

Presentation ‘Improving governance for responsible business’ by Franziska Wolff, Oeko-Institut (for the GLOBAL VALUE Consortium), European Development Days 2017

Further information

Working Paper "Case study on the governance of labour standards in Bangladesh’s garment industry"