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CSR in Asia: more than just supply chain topics

2495 tweets in just over two years.

That is the current result of an idea I had in November 2012 to try and get more information about what’s happening in Asia on sustainability and corporate social responsibility out to a Dutch audience.

What are the topics that are most relevant in for example Japan or Thailand when it comes to sustainable development and CSR which impact business operations locally?

This is what I wanted to start sharing more about with @MVOinAzie, a Twitter-account acting as a collector of resources, news, events, jobs covering any angle of sustainability and CSR in Asia as a whole and in individual countries.

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cotton shanghai

Cotton: the people behind your jeans

Een keten van uitbuiting en wreedheid

Zo werd de productieketen van kleding afgelopen vrijdag genoemd in de driedelige documentaireserie De Slag om de klerewereld. Deel drie van deze serie, afgelopen vrijdag, dook in de katoenproductie: essentieel voor productie van kleding en het begin van die complexe en lange keten.

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Exploring fair fashion (4): ‘Groen is de rode draad’ in de Nederlandse textielsector?

Creëer nostalgie naar de toekomst.

Het was de laatste tip van een middag die volledig was gewijd aan hoe de Nederlandse textielsector verder kan verduurzamen. Juist deze oproep – van Karl Raats – had eigenlijk geen rechtstreekse link met dat thema. Maar toch past het, want dat is wat er nodig is: een gezamenlijk beeld van hoe we de toekomst (van een duurzame – textiel – industrie) voor ons zien en één waar we ons allen in willen bevinden.

Die toekomst is er niet alleen één voor producenten en kledingmerken, maar ook voor consumenten en ook voor de naaisters en anderen die er voor zorgen dat onze kleding in de winkels ligt. Jolande Sap verwoordde dit door te zeggen dat consumenten niet meer zouden hoeven vragen hoe kleding geproduceerd is: het zou vanzelfsprekend moeten zijn dat het goed geproduceerd is.

Tijdens Groen is de rode draad – de conferentie over verduurzaming van de textielsector – gisteren ging het over die toekomst in de vorm van het Plan van Aanpak dat de sector in 2013 heeft opgesteld in reactie op de ramp bij de Rana Plaza fabriek in april 2013 in Bangladesh. Gedurende de middag kwamen vertegenwoordigers van de drie brancheorganisaties aan het woord die zich hebben verbonden aan dit plan van aanpak en werd in korte workshops een stand van zaken gegeven van de verschillende werkgroepen die onderdeel uitmaken van dit plan. Die werkgroepen gaan over uiteenlopende, maar vaak ook deels gerelateerde, onderwerpen zoals sociale dialoog, gebonden arbeid, circulaire economie, inkooppraktijk, leefbaar loon en communicatie.

Complexiteit in de textielsector

Dat dit complexe onderwerpen zijn om snel resultaat op te boeken bleek al snel: een aantal werkgroepen heeft nog maar een enkel bedrijf als deelnemer en meerdere bedrijven zijn verbonden aan meer dan 1 werkgroep waardoor het totaal van betrokken bedrijven relatief laag blijft. Concrete acties lijken er nog relatief weinig te zijn. Vaak wordt ook gekozen voor een kleinschalige aanpak: bijvoorbeeld met een pilot in één regio van een bepaald land.

Dit is logisch, want zoals ook in een presentatie van het Ethical Trade Initiative over de sumangali problematiek in Tamil Nadu in India duidelijk werd, kun je niet bij je leverancier waar problemen zijn binnen lopen en direct verwachten dat alles verandert. Dit vraagt vertrouwen, tijd, wederzijds respect en een aanpak per bedrijf en issue. Best ingewikkeld dus.

Ongeduld over resultaten

Tegelijkertijd begrijp ik het ongeduld van organisaties zoals SOMO, FNV, Schone Kleren Campagne en anderen ook goed: met meer zichtbare resultaten en aantoonbare best practices wordt het ook makkelijker om de achterblijvers verder mee te nemen hierin – en om meer effectieve internationale samenwerking op te zetten.

Want gezamenlijkheid en samenwerking waren de woorden die door vrijwel elke spreker meerdere keren werden genoemd. Samenwerking met partijen in Nederland: het plan van aanpak wordt juist als uniek ervaren door de bundeling van krachten van bedrijfsleven, maatschappelijke organisaties en overheid. Tegelijkertijd miste ik die gezamenlijkheid op het podium: vrijwel uitsluitend stonden hier vertegenwoordigers van het bedrijfsleven (heel belangrijk!) en een enkele vertegenwoordiger van een vakbond of maatschappelijke organisatie.

Rol van de overheid?

De overheid heb ik vooral gezien als bezoeker. Vanuit het werk wat ik doe voor onder andere het ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken weet ik dat de overheid nauw betrokken is bij dit plan van aanpak, maar dat kwam zeker niet voor het voetlicht tijdens deze middag. Sterker nog, het was ook het onderwerp van meerdere discussies waar ik in belandde tijdens de middag: de overheid zou meer moeten doen. Terwijl onzichtbaar is wat de overheid nu al doet.

Daarnaast kwam op meerdere momenten terug dat die samenwerking ook een internationaler karakter zou moeten krijgen: Nederland is een te klein landje om hier alleen het verschil in te kunnen maken. Waar is de Europese coördinatie op dit onderwerp zodat verschillende initiatieven wellicht versneld gerealiseerd kunnen worden en er meer invloed uitgeoefend kan worden op lokale overheden in bijvoorbeeld Bangladesh of China? Een terecht punt: in Nederland kunnen we wel wetgeving neerleggen dat kleding gemaakt met kinderarbeid er niet meer in komt maar zonder brede Europese implementatie hiervan heeft dit geen enkele kans van slagen.

Er is dus nog een lange weg te gaan naar die gedroomde toekomst. Maar, de zaal zat vol en in mijn beleving vooral ook met kledingbedrijven zelf.


Hopelijk durven zij steeds meer stappen te zetten én hun creativiteit te benutten om dichter bij die toekomst te komen.

Weekend reading: on WeChat, ‘sea turtles’ and more

While I’m on a long flight back to Europe, here are some interesting reads from the past week(s) on – mostly – China.

‘Are you on Wechat?’

This is probably one of the questions I’ve heard most while here. So, clearly, this is a major communications channel for people living here. And WeChat is much more than just a Chinese version on Whatsapp, as is explained in this extensive and interesting article on TheNextWeb.

Journey of the ‘Sea Turtles’

Another article on contemporary society in China, posted on TeaLeafNation this week, goes into the background of Chinese who’ve studied abroad and decide to come back to China, or don’t come back, or come back and leave again. It’s a complicated discussion, and the article shares some examples of why this is also a very personal discussion for many Chinese people in this situation. There’s a lot to gain in China in an economic sense: job opportunities and the fact that you are not a migrant in an unknown country, but at the same time this isn’t always as easy as it seems with having to build a new network and being confronted by a lot of social issues (high cost for housing, schools, etc).

Shenzhen Architecture Biënnale

At the moment, the Shenzhen Architecture Biënnale is taking place, which is curated by Dutchman Ole Bouman. As you can tell from this blog I’m interested in (sustainable) urban development, especially as it is such a huge issue in the Chinese context. This article (in Dutch) offers a critical perspective at this year’s biennale, and asks why none of the questions relevant to the ever-continuing Chinese urbanisation are asked at this important event.

Still to see:

And on my list to watch back in the Netherlands is this episode of Rambam on supply chain transparency in the textile industry, specifically focusing on two Dutch companies (Wibra & CoolCat) which have been very negatively featured in the Dutch media the last months (especially CoolCat). From a Dutch perspective, when talking about CSR in international business it almost firstly arrives at supply chains and then it immediately links to the textile industry. I am currently doing some work on this with a group of Dutch companies in Shanghai and am very curious what this programme will present in this case (as especially in the CoolCat case, I think there is a lot of misrepresentation going on).

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.

FairPhone – almost here?

Last week I wrote about fair fashion, but a topic which is possibly even more complex is fair electronics. The more information gets out about the supply chain of producing electronics – and let’s face it, don’t we all live with our cell phones, laptops, e-readers, tablets? – the more it seems that there is no good done in any part of it. Whether it’s materials (such as conflict minerals) or local labour circumstances (such as the issues that came out at Foxconn several times last year), it seems it would be pretty much impossible to make a fair smartphone – exactly because of those complexities in the supply chain.

A Dutch start-up is courageously trying to do exactly this: produce a fair phone. Or at least, one that is as fair as feasible currently. I’ve been following the company as they share their dilemma’s and the choices they need to make, such as which Chinese production partner to work with.

I admire a group of people like this, who see a problem and set out to find a solution to this problem. And be honest about it. It may not be quite 100% fair just yet, but it’s looking more and more likely that it will be the next best thing – by a long way.

It’s also starting to look very likely that this might be the answer to my personal dilemma of whether or not to get a smartphone…

Bangladesh and the long road to ‘fair’ fashion

When it comes to news on CSR in Asia, this week has been all about the collapsed factory in Bangladesh. As I’m writing this, the news is announcing a still rising death toll, up to 500+ by now.

A tragedy. And I feel it does show that the prices we pay for our clothes in Western Europe are not sustainable, least of all for the people who manufacture these clothes. Would it kill us to pay a few euro more for a t-shirt so that other people can have a slightly better standard of living?

The problems in Bangladesh’ textile production industry aren’t new, and a search on the BBC News site will bring up reports from many accidents over the last few years. A change is long overdue.

Today I also heard the news that Disney is withdrawing its production from Bangladesh (and several other countries).* Apparently this had already been decided after the fire in a textile factory in Dhaka killing over a 100 people in November 2012.

However, even if this may be an effective way for Disney to reduce its risks, this can’t be the way that that change is going to take place. Without the textile industry in Bangladesh, many many more people would be without a job and without any income. Bangladesh depends in large on this industry for its exports. Should we boycott the country? Or should industry take responsibility and work together with (local) government and ngo’s to improve the labour circumstances on the ground, and thereby improve the quality of life of many people?

An easy choice, when writing it down like that. But a difficult process to begin and to get going effectively. And, it can’t be down to industry alone. It also means that consumers have a responsibility to ask for better produced clothing. Unfortunately, that requires information: how does your favourite brand rank when it comes to labour, safety, health in its production locations?

In the Netherlands there are a few resources available, which will hopefully be gaining in exposure. Some examples are Rankabrand and an app by Talking Dress to help you find brands that perform better on these issues.

And if you want to know more about sustainable fashion or CSR in the textile industry, there are a few events coming up in the next two months or so:
> the communications agency Schuttelaar & Partners will host their next Maatschappelijk Café on fair fashion (May 28, Den Haag)
> three Dutch industry associations in textiles and fashion are collaborating to organize a conference on CSR in the textiles industry: Groen is de Rode Draad (June 20, Den Haag)

* UPDATE [5/5] – through a friend I just came across this article which discusses the Disney withdrawal in more detail. I still don’t believe that disengagement is the way forward. However, I can also understand the argument of lack of leverage (assuming Disney’s leverage is as non-existent as they seem to imply) for disengaging if that means you can allow more attention and effort in making sure other production locations are responsibly managed. Nevertheless, I do hope the choice for which country to leave from and in which country to stay was not just based on a Worldbank list as it should also depend on individual factories and local knowledge (available within the company, Disney in this case) – where circumstances may vary a lot locally.