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Technology as a Means to End Poverty for all Apparel Sector Workers

By Janet Gilbert

Adobe Stock Photo

The global fashion industry, generating about 3 trillion USD in 2021, is increasingly scrutinized for how ineffectually it supports the livelihoods of the growers and makers who make it all possible. Out of a global workforce of 3.4 billion people, approximately 430 million work in fashion and textile supply chains. That’s more than 12 percent of the world’s total workforce. It is estimated that only 2% of the world’s garment workers are paid a living wage, meaning that as many as 98% of garment workers cannot meet their most basic needs. If we are to meet our target of ending poverty by 2030, as set forth by the first UN Sustainable Development Goal, it is imperative that the apparel sector throw its weight toward workers in value chains so that target can be met.

The global supply chain is a complicated, opaque system and brands are often unaware of most of what happens before a garment is shipped for commerce, so it is not as simple as paying more to the final supplier in the chain, though that is one part of the answer. At the very least, just to get a baseline reading, full transparency and traceability in supply chains are necessary. For, we cannot remediate what we do not specifically know is problematic. Technology could be what bridges the gap. There is currently a flourishing ecosystem of technology products used across the private sector spectrum, including those which support supply chain transparency and traceability. It follows then that the fashion industry must employ these tools so that poverty can be meaningfully addressed. It also follows that these tools should be used in such a way that the people they are meant to protect remain in focus.

The most notable of these technologies is blockchain, a distributed ledger system which, in real time, can efficiently manage large amounts of data in a decentralized platform guaranteeing the fidelity and security of a record of data while generating trust without the need for a trusted third party, such as an accreditation body or auditor. Since the data is recorded in a network of computers, or decentralized, once it is sent to a blockchain network, it cannot be deleted or removed from all the systems.

“Humanitarian blockchain” refers to applied blockchain technology efforts that attempt to address humanitarian crises and human rights abuses, such as forced labor in supply chains. In the food industry, the WWF’S bait-to-plate program attaches a combination of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and quick response (QR) codes onto a blockchain. That food product’s journey through the supply chain can be followed on a smartphone by scanning the QR code of the product. While tracking a product’s whereabouts is important, this kind of system does not necessarily address labor exploitation. What is more is that since data cannot be removed from the blockchain, corrupted data from the onset could give way to the appearance of a speckless supply chain, satisfying brands, regulators, and consumers, while potentially doing little to address worker exploitation.

Surveillance technology is also being employed in our supply chains as a means for reaching transparency and traceability. ViJi, a French start up, follows the production of apparel in real time using photo-geolocation to ensure that suppliers are following a client brand’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) procedures. They authenticate this information using blockchain, and make the data accessible to consumers through an app. Similarly, Truepic, a digital image provenance and authenticity start up, has been piloting its Vision product, a remote verification platform allowing brands to “audit, inspect, and track operations and products with authenticated images and video, remotely and securely.” This kind of technology might be able to address some working condition issues such as poor lighting, there is little evidence to suggest that it can report on low wages or overtime. Also, while it is becoming more common in the digital age, it is entirely fair to have some concerns about surveillance technology when human rights are concerned.

Worker centric technology known as Worker Voice Tools (WVT) are both available and being piloted for CSR departments where workers can presumably communicate their grievances straight to a brand. This significantly limits the need for a social auditor middleman, where data can be easily fudged or where workers may not feel compelled to tell the truth out of fear of retribution. One such example is that of Elevate’s EIQ system, in which garment workers can anonymously report their labor conditions in surveys. Another WVT currently being piloted in four Bangladeshi factories is PrimaDollar’s “factory social score” system, whereby, through a smartphone app, workers can confidentially report on several dimensions, including wages, working conditions, safety and treatment. Such systems are great for collecting data in Tier 1 manufacturing, that is the cut and sew process before shipment to retail, but may not necessarily address the common practice of supplier subcontracting or the rest of the supply chain, such as the raw materials stage where forced labor is known to exist. Also, while due diligence laws exist in some countries but not others, a brand may not necessarily be legally bound to remediate.

Transparency and traceability technology is undoubtedly the future for the apparel sector. At the very least, it creates efficiencies for storing and keeping records of information or facilitating payments. The question is- will the industry use it as necessary in its toolkit to address poverty in its supply chains? That is, will workers be centered, and not just those on the factory floor in the final stage of production, but through the whole of the value chain? Many supply chain workers live bucolically and may not have access to technology, or even electricity. These communities need to be centered as well, by brands, governments and civil society alike. This is one of the key values of HxN- collaboration and community with indigenous and agrarian growers and makers across the value chain. Transparency and traceability technology is not a magic bullet on its own- it is a tool whose purpose is determined by the user. If we are to meet no poverty by 2030, it is crucial that the apparel sector, amongst others, use this technology to meet the needs of all workers.

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