Are We Making Progress? Considering Recent News About “Apparel Fashion and Sustainability” — and the Investor Initiative to Help Make East Asian Factory Workers Safer and Better Paid…

by Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

In monitoring the growing abundance of news stories and commentary about “supply chain,” “globalization” or “trade” topics and issues, our editors often see the focus is on apparel, clothing, textiles, fashionand related topics & issues.

Companies in the developed economies widely source apparel footwear and related items in the developing and under-developed nations – and what happens there can quickly make news that travels around the globe.

Example:  The focus five years ago about this time was on the East Asian nation of Bangladesh and the Rana Plaza vertical factory tragedy in the capital city of Dhaka (or Dacca) that killed more than 1,000 garment industry workers.  The labels of leading western nation marketers were scattered about the debris and ashes — and those familiar brand images as well as images of the collapsed building and details of the tragedy helped to focus attention on worker conditions in the East Asian region in both North America and Europe.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) investor coalition is keeping the focus on worker safety as the “Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety” is renewed for another three years.

ICCR institutions and their investor allies organized as “The Bangladesh Investor Initiative” (with collective AUM of US$4.5 trillion) on the 5th anniversary are urging a stronger corporate response and demonstrated commitment to local worker safety and adequate wage levels.  The link to our blog commentary on recent developments and background information for companies and investors is below.

Some good news to share is that sustainability is catching on in the fashion industry.  The uber fashion magazine from publishers Conde Nast – Vogue, with more than one million readers — just published a story about the embrace of “eco-friendly” fashion, spotlighting “the best designers of a new generation are stitching sustainability into everything they do…”

“While sustainability has long been considered a “byword for hemp-heavy bohemia,” writer Olivia Singer explains, “a new generation of designers is building brands with a more conscious approach to fashion at their core.”

Fabrics are sourced through collectives in India empowering female weavers as just one example.  In the article designers explain why sustainability is important to their brands (Richard Malone, Le Kilt, Elliss, E.L.V. Denim, Alyx, Marine Serre, Richard Quinn are featured interviews).

A number of creative approaches being adopted by the designers is explained — just think about the contribution to global sustainability of turning recycled plastics and viscose into yarn and fringing, using organic cotton as well as recycled polyester for “new” fashions, creating ECONYL from fishnets to make swimwear, and using recycled cotton and plastics as part of the effort of making sustainability a “pillar of luxury”.

The encouraging details are in our Top Story this week – a cautionary note:  some of the fashion photos are edgy and might offend.

Top Stories

The Young Designers Pioneering A Sustainable Fashion Revolution
(Thursday – April 26, 2018) Source: Vogue – While eco-friendly fashion has never had particularly glamorous connotations, the best designers of a new generation are stitching sustainability into everything they do.

And of interest, our own related content on G&A’s Sustainability Update Blog:  The Bangladesh Garment Factory Workers Tragedy and Investor and Corporate Response Five Years On…

Global Trade – Good or Bad For Nations – For Individuals — a Factor in Encouraging Greater Sustainability for Society?

by Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

“Trade” can be viewed in the macro-environment or the micro, with personal advantages and disadvantages for men and women in both developed and developing nations.

With a new administration coming to Washington DC in January 2017, the heated rhetoric of the 2016 presidential primaries and during the general campaign quickly moved “trade” as a loose-lip and often-un-informed talking point at rallies in the direction of possibly enacted national public policy.

Tear up NAFTA  – punish China – make cozy deals with countries one-at-a-time instead of multi-lateral agreements.  That’s seemingly the direction of the Trump Administration policy-making in 2018 — if we believe the rhetoric.

So — the question hangs — is global trade good or bad for U.S. workers…for the economy…for workers in both developed and developing nations…as a positive or negative in the quest for greater global sustainability?

As in all policy making, we must search for truth and evidence to help answer the questions — and guide public governance.

We do have help if we want to tune in to the source:  The independent, not-for-profit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) weighed in in April with a Working Paper: “How Large Are the U.S. Economy’s Gains From Trade?”

FYI – NBER (founded in 1920) is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has a huge cadre of economists and researchers that work to provide us with “objective, quantitative analysis of the American economy.”

The scholars issue a steady stream of Working Papers for public consumption (and study and discussion by policy makers looking for “truth, fact, objectivity, reliable findings”  — my characterizations).

The name may ring a bell — NBER is the non-governmental organization that declares the official start and end of a U.S. recession, for example.  Their declaration is often separate of what is going on in the capital markets so it stands out.

In the current paper, the researchers examined “estimates of the economic benefits of a globally-open economy.”  And the impact plus or minus on the American economy.

Most likely results: they see a gain for the U.S. domestic economy of from 2% to 8% through open global trade, depending on certain assumptions about consumer and producer behavior.

What if we actually slammed the door shut on trade beyond our borders?  Authors Arnaud Costinot and Andres Rodrigues-Clare explain there is [surprisingly] little direct quantitative evidence on how the economy would react if we did begin to close the doors on global trade. (Note to policymakers: That’s why we don’t make hasty or dumb decisions on trade!)

Looking at such factors as labor and capital embedded in goods purchased from around the world, they estimated the gains from trade by comparing the size of a “counter-factual” U.S. economy that would depend entirely on domestic sources compared with a nation (like the USA) that has ready access to foreign services and goods.

While the dollar value of U.S. imports is large, as a percentage of national spending it is actually really small.

There are varying impacts of open trade on individual industries – and the enterprises and their workers.

For garment and apparel companies the demand for cheap labor is “in-elastic” in economic lingo. Not much wiggle room or flexibility. That is why the companies go to East Asia for labor inputs.

For an American automaker, the import of German-made transmissions for installation in Detroit’s models is somewhat lesser of an impact (there are always alternatives).  US manufacturers used to be more “integrated” and made most of the components for their trucks and cars. Now the industry is defined as a global sourcer.

For U.S. farmers, the impact depends on where else in the world wheat is grown and the ready availability and pricing for that wheat. Trade is critical to the American farm belt.

Think of rare minerals used in manufacturing — if vital minerals are only available in certain areas of the globe, and are needed (say for making cell phones or other electronic products), the dependency is greater for U.S. manufacturers (again, in-elasticity reigns).

Tradeoffs in global trade exist everywhere: Lower consumer prices are enjoyed (as designer-label garments flow to U.S. retailers’ shelves from cheap East Asian labor sourcing) — but too many American workers may lose jobs and/or work for lower wages.  And in turn, local communities suffer.  The 2016 elections showed one of the results of that suffering as voters signalled their discontent with trade policies.

Global Trade ESG Issues

NBER researchers looked at a different topic in the trade bucket for their Working Paper: the effects of Fair Trade Certification.

The movement began led by a church-affiliated NGO in Holland and quickly spread throughout Europe and to the U.S.A. and various groups coalesced in the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (“FLO”) in 1997.

In this research effort, NBER authors Raluca Dragusanu and Nathan Nunn examined the impact of the Fair Trade movement on coffee producers in the Central American nation of Costa Rica, in the heart of the global coffee belt (typically countries near the Equator).

They looked at FLO impacts on incomes of coffee growers, their neighbors and communities.

Fair Trade policies, they assert, is a positive as it raises prices for local growers, to begin with, high enough to cover the cost of production. The higher prices are typically intended as well to raise the quality of life in the coffee-growing region.

Premium prices paid by buyers above the set minimums are used to build schools and establish scholarships, create local health care facilities, and various infrastructure, and to help improve growing practices.

Through fair trade practices, income rises in Fair Trade growing areas, for both certified growers and many of their non-growers neighbors.

Income levels were on average 3.5% higher for growers and as much as 7.5% for “skilled” coffee growers (when the “intensity of fair trade increases in an area).

The researchers found that price premiums for growers increased school enrollments (2%-to-5%) for children ages 13-to-17 — critical ages for young men and women preparing for their adult lives.

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We found this and other NBER research interesting. We have “cold, hard facts” about the economy and trade and the “what-ifs” if present trade policies and practices are messed with, and the results are in the main “unknown”.

And we see that global trade is lifting people and their communities in a Central American country where coffee growing is an important agricultural pursuit.  And a benefit of open and fair trade.

Like climate change and many other public issues, there are plusses and minuses in trade affairs — and no easy answers!

Therefore, we can argue, let reason reign, common sense be applied — and science and facts and evidence-based research be the foundations of good public sector decision-making!

Thanks to NBER researchers for their efforts (in producing more than 1,000 Working Papers a year) to continue to produce research and surface evidence that can add to be leveraged to develop both public and private sector strategies.

You can learn more at:  www.nber.org

Top 10 GRI Sustainability Aspects for the Textiles & Apparel Sector

Sustainability – What Matters in the Textiles & Apparel Sector? 

30-textiles-and-apparel

Recent research conducted by the Governance & Accountability Institute attempts to answer important questions for company managements in the Textiles & Apparel Sector, by examining the disclosure practices of 12 global peer organizations publishing GRI reports in the sector.

The top 10 Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) aspects that were determined to be material by the managements of reporting organizations in the Textiles & Apparel Sector are:

  1. Transport
  2. Prevention of Forced and Compulsory Labor
  3. Child Labor
  4. Investment and Procurement Practices
  5. Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining
  6. Customer Health and Safety
  7. Security Practices
  8. Customer Privacy
  9. Diversity and Equal Opportunity
  10. Non-Discrimination

Results:  The complimentary report examining 35 sectors including top 10 GRI aspects, and top/bottom 10 GRI performance indicators can be downloaded here:
www.ga-institute.com/sustainability-what-matters

The full rankings for all 84 GRI performance indicators and all 37 GRI Aspects for each of the 35 sectors examined are available for purchase at:
www.ga-institute.com/getall84

Organizations included in the Textiles & Apparel Sector study are:

Adidas Group, American Eagle Outfitters, CALIDA, Gildan, H&M (Hennes & Mauritz), Lojas Renner S.A., Milteks, Nike, PPR SA, Puma, SLN Tekstil ve Moda San.Tic.Ltd.Sti., The Timberland Company

About G&A Institute (www.ga-institute.com)
G&A Institute is a New York-based, private sector company providing sustainability-focused services and resources to corporate and investment community clients, including: Issue Counseling & Sustainability Strategies; Sustainability Reporting; Materiality Assessments; Stakeholder Engagement; Benchmarking; Investor Relations; Communications; Coaching, Team Building & Training;  Issues Monitoring & Customized Research; Third Party Recognitions.  G&A is the exclusive Data Partner for the GRI in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Editors
On the G&A Institute web site there is additional information available on the Fact Sheet: What Matters Project (www.ga-institute.com/research-reports/sustainability-what-matters/fact-sheet).  The resulting “most important” to “least important” ranking for the 35 sectors is available to media on a case-by-case basis please contact:  Peter Hamilton (phamilton@ga-institute.com).

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Corporate Human Rights Performance — Benchmarking and Ranking of Global Companies

by Hank Boerner – G&A Institute

Interesting news out of Switzerland today — the first wide scale project to rank up to 500 global companies on their human rights performance was launched, and corporate human rights performance in key sectors will be researched and ranked over the coming months.  The first sectors in focus are Agriculture, Apparel, Extractives, and Information and Communications Technology.

This is the new Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (“CHRB”).

The organizers of the long-term project include Aviva Investors; Business and Human Rights Resource Center; EIRIS; the Institute for Human Rights and Business; and VBDO (a sustainable investment forum for SR investors in the Netherlands).  The Corporate Roundtable (ICAR) has endorsed the project.

In announcing the project, the organizers said that investors, companies and consumers are increasingly aware of the impacts of business on human rights.  The project will share the first publicly-available (open source) information on corporate policies, processes and performance on human rights…including what managements are doing to address negative impacts, and what they can do to scale resources.

Among recent positive developments the organizers citied:

  • A year after the Rana Plaza factory fire in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Accord has spurred on greater transparency, with increased public reporting on factory inspections.
  • Beverage industry giants Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo have committed to Zero Tolerance policies on “land grabs.”
  • The European Union is committed to restricting exports of spyware surveillance technologies because of human rights concerns.
  • The recently-adopted Conflict Mineral legislation in the United States has resulted in a 65% drop in armed groups profiting from illegal mining trade.

Backgrounds of the partnering organizations in the project:

  • Aviva Investors – global asset management business, and part of Aviva plc, one of the UK’s largest insurance services providers.
  • Business and Human Rights Resource Centre – international NGO that tracks human rights impact of 5,600 companies in 180+ countries, with information available in 7 languages.
  • Calvert Investments – influential US investment management firm and long-time recognized leader in advancing sustainable & responsible investment strategies.
  • EIRIS – global leader in ESG research and SRI strategies (UK based with members in the EU).
  • Institute for Human Rights and Business – global “think and do” tank, providing “impartial space for dialogue to deepen understanding of human rights challenges and the [appropriate] role of business.”
  • VBDO – The Dutch association of institutional investors promoting  sustainable development; members consider both financial and ESG criteria for their investments.

Over the next 3 years the 6 organizations — organized as the “CHRB Steering Group” — will conduct a worldwide “consultation” on the methodology and results with diverse stakeholders, and collect and release information on 500 companies’ human rights performance.  The information will be open source, and available to company managements, investors, the public sector, local communities, and NGOs.

Steve Waygood of Aviva Investors commented:  “Our benchmark will introduce a positive competitive environment and companies try to race to the top of the annual ranking.  [The effort] will also shine a light on those [companies] where performance needs to improve.

“It took more than 60 years from the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were developed.

“We believe that within 6 years of their approval, we can help to make these Guiding Principles routine corporate practice through the development and use of the Benchmark.”

Information is available through EIRIS:  contact is Stephen Hine, head of Responsible Investment Development – Stephen.hine@eiris.org

Note that the team at Governance & Accountability Institute identifies, tracks and monitors third party recognitions of companies for a variety of [their] achievements. These include scores, rankings, ratings, and “best of” lists.  This is definitely a growth business, and the third party actions can have influence on a company’s reputation and capital markets valuation.  Investors and other third parti4s will be watching the new human rights benchmarking as the project moves forward.