Plans to promote sustainably produced clothing announced by German Development Minister Gerd Müller are under attack. Apparel producers and NGOs consider the approach unrealistic, while the Green Party spoke of deliberate deception. EurActiv Germany reports.
In Germany, the debate over excessively low social standards at textile production sites is in full swing.
The collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh, and a recent whirlwind of news reporting calls for help from Chinese labourers in garments sold by Irish clothing chain Primark, have caught the attention of German Development Minister Gerd Müller.
"Unbelievable conditions often prevail in the countries where our clothes are produced", said Müller. There, he said, women work 16 hours per day and six days per week for an hourly wage of five cents. This is not enough for a family to survive on, Müller pointed out.
"Simply so we can buy t-shirts so cheaply that washing them is more expensive than throwing them away", the Minister commented.
More clearly than ever, Müller spoke this week about the prospect of introducing social labelling for textile goods.
"We are working on a label that will send a signal to consumers”, said Müller on Monday (7 July) in an interview with the Rheinische Post. Clothes tagged with the special label will come from conditions where “seamstresses involved in production can live from their work and ecological standards were complied with", the development minister said.
As a part of the project, Müller organised a "textile alliance" will come up with a concrete plan for such a label. Since then, a total of two meetings have taken place in a round table format among representatives from civil society, unions and the clothing industry. Participants included industry giants like Adidas, Kik, Aldi and Lidl.
Müller's goal: A fair trade textile label to be developed by the end of this year, covering the entire supply chain "from the cotton field to the hanger".
Müller's label is "far from reality"
But the development NGO Oxfam is eyeing Müller's labelling plans with scepticism.
"It is difficult to completely control such a complex supply chain. And there is also a danger of abuse", said Franziska Humbert, Oxfam campaign advisor in a statement for EurActiv Berlin.
Previous initiatives to improve human rights standards in the supply chain were faced with the supplier companies' failure to comply with required social standards, she indicated.
Here, the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), consisting of 1,300 textile firms worldwide, is a case in point. The initiative has rejected introducing a certification system and instead, hopes to encourage suppliers in developing countries to enforce long-term, higher social standards in their production sites. To do this, companies conduct training sessions and audits, but only with their main suppliers. Meanwhile, the latter are responsible for ensuring compliance with social standards in the downstream supply chain.
"And even that does not always work", explained Jan Eggert, Chief Executive Manager of the Foreign Trade Association of German Retail Trade (AVE), speaking with EurActiv.de.
"The supply chain is complex. Often it contains up to twelve levels", said Eggert. "It is almost impossible to monitor every step of the production process without missing anything. We would welcome such a label, but do not want to promise something that we cannot maintain", he said.
Gerd Müller's textile label is just "far from reality", Eggert explained.
Greens want more than words
Germany’s Green Party added criticism that Müller's plans are a "PR-manoeuvre" and are simply made up of empty words.
By submitting a small enquiry, the Green Party's Bundestag faction had hoped to find out the concrete principles and a time schedule for the development of the clothing tag.
In its response from 2 July, acquired by EurActiv, the German government remained silent on the issue. "The ongoing negotiation process among the actors involved should not be forestalled", the document says.
Over the course of the summer, the textile alliance will develop a plan of action, the document indicated, outlining concrete steps toward a sustainable textile market. The action plan is also intended to contain clues on how to control the textile industry's complex supply chains.
"But as a result, these measures must not necessarily take place through the textile alliance itself. For example, it would be possible to tap into existing standard systems and sustainability initiatives within the framework of the textile alliance", the BMZ writes.
The Green Party considers this approach too short-sighted: "Minister Müller is not making any headway. He still does not know how the label should be developed and implemented. There is no more mention of the original announcement to finish the label by the end of this year", explained MPs Renate Künast and Uwe Kekeritz.
Müller's promise, to improve working conditions in the global supply chain threatens to become mere "lip service", the two said.
A label alone is not enough
Despite this criticism, Oxfam welcomes the development ministry's initiative to bring various actors to a round table. "This is a great chance, to work towards sustainable progress," said Humbert, but a label alone is not enough.
Legal regulations are necessary for long-term improvements to working conditions and also in the supply chain – among them effective implementation of the UN guidelines for human rights and business.
According to Humbert, this must include enforcing a responsibility to accommodate human rights that is firmly anchored in the law. Along these lines, companies should be required to identify and mitigate adverse effects of their trade activities, as well as those of their suppliers, she said.
Political actors and business must also provide affected workers with instruments to file complaints via judicial and extra-judicial means. In this way textile firms would be forced to prevent catastrophes like the one in Bangladesh and to assemble offices where complaints can be made, said Humbert. "But up until now," she said, "none of this has occurred".