Exploring fair fashion (2): finding answers

Two months ago I wrote about my frustration that no one in clothing shops ever seems to have an answer to my question: “Where and how is this dress/skirt/shirt made?”

Today, though the shop assistant couldn’t answer my question about the particular shirt I was holding, she could at least give me alternatives in her shop. And she said that their customers do ask about how things are made that they sell – which I haven’t heard anywhere else before.

Part of her answer was that they only stock smaller brands. I think she meant that that implies that these brands also take better care of their supply chain. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s possible that a smaller company has a less complex supply chain and therefore knows better where and how its products are made. But it’s also possible that a small company doesn’t have the resources to go into these issues and outsources their production to unknown third parties.

Anyway.

It doesn’t change the fact that it’s difficult to get answers to this question, when you care about the production circumstances of the things you wear and use.

Asking for transparency

Following up from my post in October, I now know a little bit more about Nümph’s policies on responsible production. I understand that it’s difficult for a company to be open and transparent about these topics – especially when it’s ‘just’ a random customer asking. From the information I’ve received the company follows regulations on e.g. REACH and child labour. Several of their producers in China are BSCI-certified.

These are good things.

Yet I was hoping for more. But maybe this is too difficult to share or to explain? Then again, if a clear policy would be in place – such as minimum requirements for suppliers – it would help so much if this is more openly shared. I have no hesitation buying things from Skunkfunk because of their extensive information online. It may not be possible to guarantee that nothing will go wrong, but showing that a company cares goes a long way in my book.

Another example of showing you care is what I came across today in Vanilia’s shop (I thought about taking a picture – and didn’t. I’ll have to go back). Along with the price tag is a small tag that says: we care.

With the questions I ask, what I have in mind mostly is local labour conditions. And yet. There’s so much more that is happening in the supply chain in the fashion industry. Greenpeace had a big campaign earlier this year on the use of toxic chemicals in the textile industry.

Adding more issues to think about

And only today a friend alerted me to the possibility of GMOs used in cotton in China….

It’s way too much to be able to take in when you are out shopping.

And as someone told me a while ago: there really are no realistic alternatives to the regular high street brands out there. With emphasis on realistic: where you don’t have to trawl online for information, email brands, and so on….

In the Netherlands, the discussion for a cleaner supply chain in the fashion industry has been on-going. And only last Friday, the minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation published the Dutch National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. The action plan calls on businesses to put more effort in to knowing the impact their corporate activities have on human rights – be it within their own operations or in their supply chain – and to show what they do about preventing or mitigating the effect of these activities on human rights abuses. I look forward to see how these intentions will be put into further action, and if this will trickle down to, for instance, consumers like myself (or rather, consumers not like myself).

PS, my shopping excursion this afternoon did lead me to a new discovery for beautiful accessories: CultureMix

Weekend reading: on plastic bags, CR reporting in Asia & carbon emissions

It’s been a while since I took some time to collect a few interesting online articles for the weekend. So, for your reading pleasure this December weekend, here are a few pieces I think are worth your time.

‘Every little bit helps’?

The Guardian published a piece on the question whether it is really true that, when it comes to adapting to climate change and creating a more sustainable society, every little bit helps: does it matter if you re-use plastic shopping bags? I agree with the conclusion of the author, that small actions such as re-using shopping bags only matter when it is a catalyst for other, more impactful, activities – instead of it remaining a ‘token’ activity.

For me, personally (and I’ve said this before), participating in the No Impact Project has been very important in being that catalyst to make changes in my life (though I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a long way to go).

On reporting about corporate responsibility (CR)

This month saw the publication of KPMG’s survey on CR reporting in 2013. And, one of the main conclusions in the report is that the Asia-Pacific region sees the strongest growth worldwide in CR reporting. This growth – from 49% in 2011 to 71% in 2013 – is attributed in part to new countries being included in the survey (such as Indonesia and Malaysia) but also to, for instance, the introduction of new regulations on voluntary and compulsory CR reporting in India and Singapore.

However, does an increase in reporting about environmental and social issues also mean that these companies are acting more responsibly as well? BusinessWeek looks at CR reporting in China, another Asian country where the number of companies reporting on environmental and social issues has increased strongly. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily correspond to ‘better’ behaviour.

A more in-depth article on CR reporting in China by China Dialogue expands on this point, with examples of companies which have been awarded for their reporting achievements while simultaneously being involved in serious environmental problems caused by their activities. This leads China Dialogue to conclude that CR reporting in China is still mainly greenwashing. It also recommends for more Chinese companies to adhere to international reporting standards (such as GRI) so that the reports will become easier to understand – and become more transparent. Another point in this article is the need for more monitoring of corporate behaviour – and CR reports – so that changes actually happen.

Both of these articles are based on a recent analysis of Syntao on CSR reporting in China.

Reducing carbon emissions

The consultancy firm BSR shares some insights this week on how to improve corporate behaviour, focusing on how companies operating in China can reduce carbon emissions through their supply chain.

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Do you want a more regular dose of reading suggestions? I keep track of news on sustainability and CSR also on Twitter, via @MVOinAzie (which translates to ‘CSR in Asia’ but covers many more topics than just CSR). You can find (re)tweets on topics as diverse as sustainable palmoil and labour issues and from South-Korea to India.

Lu Guang in Amsterdam

This evening I was lucky enough to see a well-known Chinese photographer speak: Lu Guang, who is a former World Press Photo winner, and one of this year’s Prince Claus Fund’s laureates.

Lu Guang’s photography shows the environmental devastation which comes as the result of China’s rapid economic development. Confronting, dramatic, shocking – and yet, sometimes also strangely beautiful. It was an impressive evening, listening to him talk about his work, the reasons for doing this – while at the same time seeing some of his work slide past.

It’s not my pictures that are shocking. Reality is shocking.

With his photography Lu Guang is giving a voice to the people who are suffering most from the negative effects of this economic growth in China. Hopefully, his work will find a much larger audience still and he will continue to have an impact and change something.

You can listen to an interview with Lu Guang here, which showcases his work on coal mining in Inner Mongolia.

The series of photographs that won Lu Guang a World Press Photo award in 2003 on China’s AIDS villages can be viewed here.

[Update: the evening’s moderator Ardi Bouwers has also published a post on her blog, which includes some pictures. And on Facebook, the Prince Claus Fund has some pictures online.

The makings of a business event: what next

Yesterday I listened to a speech on failure, and how failing is necessary to progress and make successful.

Today I feel I’m right in the middle of the message in that speech: we are postponing the event on CSR in China that I have been working on for the last few months. Failure?

I’m disappointed that we didn’t succeed in realizing this event in the way that we hoped. I can already identify several reasons for this, and it will mean that the next attempt to organize an event on CSR in Asia will have some different components, different communication, different partners possibly.

And yet, I guess this is all part of it. ‘It’ being the work that I need to do right now to gain success in this venture that is establishing my own business presence. Occasionally that will come quite easily, but often it takes a few times to get something right.

The main message in yesterday’s speech was to always do the things you want to do – even if they are hard, are scary, go way beyond your comfort zone: yes, of course you might fail. But if you don’t, you will have no opportunity to succeed either. This event is a case in point. Even if I’ve had an idea of what I wanted to achieve from the start, I didn’t know in what way this is best achieved. Clearly, the ideas we’ve put together this time didn’t work out well enough.

So, onwards and upwards. We’re looking at possibly changing the scope of next week’s afternoon to tailor it more to the group of people who have registered. And next year should see another event on the theme of Asia & CSR. Because I still believe this is a topic worth working on and talking about.

 

Planning for 2014: Shanghai

December.

And it’s a cliché but I can’t believe how fast this year has gone. It also means that now, by the end of this year in which I started out working independently, a lot of things are coming together. The next few weeks will mostly be spent finalizing my assignment at the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines. At the same time I’m doing my best to promote next week’s event on CSR in China as much as I can. And alongside of these big projects, a few smaller ideas are brewing away in my head and in discussions and meetings with people.

I am excited about and looking forward to what follows after this month. Yet, sometimes this feels scary as well. Which means that aside the current work I have been thinking about how to plan the new year: what do I need to focus on to make the coming year a success? Where can I find projects, partners, ideas that tie together the topics of Asia, CSR and business in such a way that I can deliver the best results for those projects and potential clients?

One of the things that has stuck with me most since my trip to China is what I wrote here, while in Shanghai in September:

But it has also made me realize that to be able to really work on these issues in a way that is effective […] I need to be here much more often and for a longer time in one go.

And in planning my activities in 2014, I’ve started with this. My new year will start of by realizing this objective: I’m heading to Shanghai for a few weeks in January. This (slightly extended) stay has several purposes. For one thing: to finally get a bit of a start in speaking and understanding Chinese. But also to continue establishing a strong network locally. To get to know the city better. And to possibly explore opportunities locally and/or do some work for (Dutch) companies.

I’m confident that this will then lead on to other things and that this will connect to some of the ideas I’m talking about with potential partners in the Netherlands. So the new year will be an exciting time to discover how these ideas can be realized. And spending January in Shanghai seems like the best possible start of the year I can create.

But, before I can be there properly, I’m looking for some input and help on a few things:

– I’m looking for a place to stay for a few weeks in Shanghai, so any suggestions for (shared) accomodation are very welcome.

– I’m available for projects locally: if you – as a Dutch/European company – are interested in the Shanghai market, would like to know more on CSR, sustainability or business development questions, get in touch to discuss possibilities.

– If you know of anyone looking for a place to stay for a few weeks in Den Haag: my apartment is available for rent.

And of course, if you want to meet up while I’m there, or have suggestions of people I should really meet – please let me know! I’m looking forward to being back in China again, and catching up with many people which time didn’t quite permit last time.