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The human rights issues hidden with deforestation in the fashion industry

On World Human Rights day, we look at whether the fashion industry is taking steps to protect human rights in their deforestation-risk supply chains.

By Emma Thomson

From underpaid workers in Leicester to the cotton associated with forced labour of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, workers at all stages of fashion supply chains are exposed to the risk of human rights abuses. Fashion companies in forest-risk supply chains face particular challenges – not just from links to deforestation – but also in relation to gender issues and workers’ rights.

Which is why Global Canopy’s Forest 500 assessment of the companies with the greatest influence on tropical deforestation also includes indicators to assess their approach to human rights. 

What are the human rights issues in forest supply chains?

Forest-risk commodity supply chains are opaque, with many companies not knowing who they are sourcing commodities from at different stages of the supply chain. This means they are often unaware of the conditions faced by the workers or whether their production impinges on the rights of local communities.

In our latest assessment, we assessed a total of 45 fashion companies for their commitments on deforestation, with 38 assessed for leather and 22 assessed for pulp (cellulose). But we also dug deeper and examined their commitments on human rights, including gender rights in their supply chains.

[Read more about the fashion companies facing deforestation risks here]

Labour rights in fashion supply chains

When it comes to labour rights, workers throughout the supply chain, from producers who grow the raw materials through to garment workers, can face discrimination, child labour, forced labour, and restrictions on their freedom of association. Forest 500 assesses whether companies have a labour rights commitment which covers each of these abuses.

Companies in leather supply chains score particularly badly. Of the 38 apparel and accessories companies assessed for leather, 24% have failed to make a commitment to protect the basic labour rights of their suppliers, including Bata, the world’s largest shoe manufacturer. 

In comparison, just 5% of the 22 companies assessed for wood-based fibres hadn’t published a human rights commitment.

Gender rights in fashion supply chains

In agricultural supply chains including leather and wood-based fibres, women are more likely to be on temporary contracts, more likely to be underpaid, and more likely to face discrimination and harassment than their male counterparts. Because of this, we assess whether companies in these supply chains have policies to address gender equality in their production or sourcing. This is particularly important for the fashion sector as in some countries up to 90% of garment workers are female.
These issues also resonate with consumers. Fashion Revolution found that 77% of consumers think that apparel companies have a responsibility to address gender equality. Our assessment methodology considers commitments on discrimination and harassment, gender equality, and the inclusion of women in their supply chains. 

In cellulose supply chains, 23% of companies had failed to make any commitment on gender. Aditya Birla and Sainsburys, among others, are failing to commit their suppliers to ensuring that their female workers are not at risk from gender-based harassment or discrimination. 

Nearly 30% of leather apparel companies had also failed to publish commitments on gender in their supply chains, including Samsonite International and Belle International, one of the largest shoe manufacturers and distributors in China.

Only Adidas and Marks and Spencer required their suppliers to guarantee gender equality and the inclusion of women in their supply chains for both leather and cellulose supply chains.
Commitments must be implemented

To ensure products are not linked to human rights abuses, these commitments need to be implemented throughout the companies supply chains. Such commitments ensure that not only are their direct suppliers of shoes or shirts not contributing to human rights abuses, but also that they are not sourcing the leather or cellulose from a company that is.

The European Parliament has asked the EU Commission to include requirements for companies to perform due diligence on human rights risks, as well as deforestation, in proposed EU legislation. Due diligence legislation would require companies to check for human rights risks throughout their supply chains.

Where next?

“With greater awareness of the interconnectivity of these issues, it is no longer okay to tackle one risk at a time.”

As companies prepare to rebuild their supply chains in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the green recovery needs to have a holistic view of sustainability. It should go beyond greenhouse gas emissions, and include other critical issues in supply chains, such as the protection of human rights and commitments to zero deforestation. With greater awareness of the interconnectivity of these issues, it is no longer okay for companies to tackle one risk at a time.  


Image: From Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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