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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: Chinese design, MUJI’s local handicraft, crowdsourcing in Malaysia and time-lapse videos

newspapers

What better way to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon than by catching up on this week’s blogs and news. These are some articles that caught my attention this week (admittedly, some are a little older and only found now as I was away travelling – more up to date things next week!)

I’ll start off with a slightly older article, but only spotted Friday, from the Financial Times in March (via China Design Hub) on the developing design market in China, where Chinese designers are struggling to find their place in the domestic market and at the same time gaining attention abroad.

Global Witness has published an interesting post with recommendations on how to get more Chinese companies involved in EITI, the Extractive Industries Transparancy Initiative. I think most of these recommendations are also valuable for other CSR initiatives, especially the point of localisation and clearly showing the (investment) benefits of joining an initiative such as EITI.

Moving on to Japan, I want to share this post by a fellow Japanologist Aike Rots – researching the connection between Shinto and nature – who recently visited the Tohoku region. A year after I visited myself, it is interesting to read his observations on the region, now more than two years after the tsunami hit in 2011. As I found also, despite the destruction around you, there is a strong sense of hope and expectation for things to become better again which is great to see.

And more positive news from Japan, with CSRWire’s publication on MUJI’s decision to join the Business Call to Action initiative by announcing plans to source and produce in Cambodia, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan. In these countries, MUJI will be working with local producers on MUJI designs and materials through the BCtA, which also aims at supporting the local economy in these countries.

From handicrafts to the digital world, with this piece on the development of crowdsourcing in Malaysia – an interesting read on how the government is experimenting with crowdsourcing initiatives as one way of alleviating poverty and give more people access to (micro)finance.

I will leave you with some visuals, enjoy these stunning time-lapse videos from major cities across Asia.

CSR in Japan: transparency & trust

Do you gain trust by being transparent? Or do you become more transparent when people trust you?

These are some questions I’m left with after getting a bit more perspective on corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting in Japan today. According to a 2011 survey of KPMG, 99% of Japanese companies publish a CSR report. An impressively high number, especially when you realize that there is no government regulation telling them to do so.

On corporate reporting

And, not only do many companies report – these reports are also easily accessible. No less than three (competing) Japanese websites focus on sharing CSR reports online and offer related services, such as extended search options, a report cover design award and seminars on this topic. But most of all: they offer exposure of these reports.

Today, I spoke to the people behind one of these websites, CSR Japan, about their work and about the characteristics of CSR reporting in Japan. I initially contacted this organisation as I assumed it would be the CSR association in Japan, much like MVO Nederland is in the Netherlands. The information on their website quickly showed their focus on collecting CSR reports (the website currently contains almost 500 reports of over 200 companies) and making these accessible.

I haven’t seen anything similar in the Netherlands, and I love how you can really search the relevant themes you want to know about – and it will give you the individual pages from the various reports. Imagine how much easier that makes it if you want to compare what various companies write about supply chain management, to give just one example. And on the plus side for companies who have their report listed here, they can get an overview of what pages have been viewed how often, and there’s a weekly ranking of the most searched for topics. This week, the top 5 consists of: company mission, work-life balance, investor relations, biodiversity and ‘relation with society and the environment’.

And as mentioned, CSR Japan is just one of three:

Eco Hotline has the largest collection with reports from more than 500 companies

CSR Toshokan has published reports from 400 companies

Each comes with their own additional services, of which Eco Hotline’s Report Cover Design Award is one example. [I will update this post when I have an answer to the question where this difference in quantity comes from. My guess is companies pay for the advantage of being listed, but I need to check]

Reasons for being transparent

So, why are these companies happily writing these reports, while in Europe there is a debate going on that making reporting mandatory will lead to higher costs for business? Why are Japanese companies doing this voluntarily?

CSR Japan explains this through the fact that there have been some major environmental disasters in Japan in the past (of which a well known example is Minamata). This has increased awareness from the public and from companies that it is important to be transparent about their business activities and their (environmental) impact.

Because indeed, the reports of Japanese companies seem to focus more (in comparison to for example European reports) on environmental than on social aspects of CSR. This also came back in other talks I have had today. The explanation for this may be sought in the fact that Japan has developed their own guidelines for reporting, but these focus solely on environmental issues: Environmental Reporting Guidelines by the Ministry of Environment. Luckily the other topics are partly covered by reporting through a combination of these guidelines, GRI and ISO26000.

What audience?

So, it appears that Japanese companies are mostly transparent about their activities – which is of course very good. We then spoke about who reads the reports and whether or not this makes companies vulnerable. In Europe and the US, NGO’s sometimes maintain a type of watchdog function to make sure that companies are behaving correctly – hence the vulnerability by reporting what you do, or do not do. Interestingly, Japanese NGO’s do not seem to have this function at all – and in fact are usually very trusting of Japanese companies. There are hardly examples of big campaigns being set up when something has gone wrong, because it turns out that much more than in many other countries the population of Japan overwhelmingly trusts its corporations. And doesn’t particularly think of the NGO-sector of being trusted to do the right thing.

This interesting bit of information comes from the Edelman Trust Barometer, which I heard about in a later meeting, and which surveys the level of trust annually across around 20 countries worldwide in the government, the media, business and ngo’s. This is quite a different view towards corporations than for instance in the Netherlands, where it sometimes feels that NGO’s have no trust at all in companies (and where in fact some NGO’s and politicians are calling for more regulation and monitoring on CSR topics to ensure that companies will not do anything wrong through their business activities).

I also feel that this situation changes the dynamic of CSR in Japan, compared to Europe. It may be too early to draw that conclusion, after only a few discussions. Of course you would hope that the watchful eye of NGO’s and consumers is not the sole reason for companies to behave responsibly. However, knowing that you are being held accountable for your actions – or maybe rather, knowing that no one is really watching what you are doing – must make for different choices in putting together and implementing a company’s CSR policy.

Which brings me back to the question: does transparency beget trust, or is it the other way around?