An interview with Esther Germans, SAC’s Director of Stakeholder Engagement and Partnerships, formerly of the United Nations International Labour Program.
Tell us about your background and previous work. How is your personal mission connected to the work you’re doing at the SAC?
As a kid, I was always fascinated by other countries, and issues surrounding international development. After my Bachelor’s degree in business, I followed my passion and did a Master’s degree in Economics, where I specialized in development economics. Initially, I worked on financial sector development for a large bank, and then got the chance to join the UN. This was the opportunity I wished for: to work on social and economic development issues, and serve the greater good.
Throughout my career, I have built a deep expertise on social and labor issues in the garment sector, and I am passionate about using this expertise to help ensure that good and dignified working conditions in the garment industry become the absolute norm. That is why I have joined the SAC.
You worked with the UN’s ILO program for 15 years. Can you describe the mission of ILO, and the nature of the work you did there?
The ILO’s mission is to create decent work for all. It has always recognized that safe, fair and freely chosen jobs, where workers have the right and freedom to associate and negotiate better conditions, are essential for dignity of people, development of nations, and global peace.
The ILO fulfills this mission by developing international labor standards and working with its members (governments, trade unions and employers) to implement these labor standards in law and practice. For many people, the ILO Labor standards have fundamentally improved working conditions in the last 100 years. Well known examples are: abolition of child and forced labor in many (but not all!) countries, as well as limits to hours one should work, the right to a minimum wage, and the right to maternity leave.
I worked for the ILO for over 15 years in different continents on different topics, and spent 10 of those years on the Better Work programme. Better Work’s mission is to improve working conditions and competitiveness in the global garment industry. During my last four years at the ILO, I led the Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program. BFC’s main role is to monitor working conditions in Cambodia’s 600+ garment factories and support continuous improvement. At the heart of its strategy is forging dialogue and equal collaboration between management and worker representatives to create sustainable solutions. In addition to leading an excellent team of approximately 40 staff, much of my job focused on working with the government, employers, brands, unions and manufacturers in finding industry-wide solutions to boost competitiveness of the sector, while improving working conditions and livelihood of workers.
Based on your fieldwork experience, what are some of the things that you’ve discovered that may surprise others (who have not been able to see it firsthand)? For example, what are some of the most common misconceptions and assumptions about perceived solutions that you find actually do not work when applying it to real-life situations?
In Cambodia, I experienced that there are many well intended, but often isolated and Western-driven programs aimed at improving working conditions and lives of workers. Often, factories are seen as an excellent place to get access to workers, which in fact, is true. However, this means that factories are asked to house, accommodate, and facilitate these well-intended, but often disconnected and fragmented initiatives that are not necessarily scaleable or sustainable.
While these initiatives sound great on paper, I observed that factory management and worker representatives got overwhelmed by the myriad of programs that also often shut out national institutions. That is why I worked with the national partners and international brands and manufacturers on a common vision for the industry. Such a common vision for the industry can serve as a demand driven starting point for collective action: where partners work together, pooling resources and programs to create long-lasting impact. These collective approaches help to ensure that the garment industry can be the engine for social and economic development and improved lives of workers.
There are many complex challenges when it comes to improving the supply chain to be a better environment for the well-being of workers. In your opinion, what are the key challenges and opportunities that the industry can zero in on that will make the most impact?
Purchasing practices, including short term orders, payment conditions, and last minute design changes, are directly linked to things like abuse, excessive overtime, and continuous short term contracts (to name a few persistent non-compliances at factory level). The Covid crisis has made these unfair purchasing practices and the power imbalance between manufacturers and International buyers painfully clear, and the workers are the ones paying the price.
This has created a massive opportunity for the industry to finally work on fair purchasing practices together, and we see that important progress is being made. Proven implementation and transparent and accountable reporting will be key to ensure that commitments on paper translate into actual on the ground improvements.
One of our Higg Index Tools, the Brand and Retail Module (Higg BRM), assesses the performance of brands and retailers, and includes a section that measures responsible business practices. This feature will provide key insights into brand and retailer behavior, and is essential for improvements. The SAC is also involved in industry-wide efforts to define and select harmonized indicators. Transparent reporting on a brand or retailer’s purchasing practices will help to transform relations and sustainability outcomes across the industry.
Another opportunity is the realization of many industry players that isolated action based on audit, codes of conduct, and fragmented improvement approaches has not led to large-scale progress on the sustainable agenda. While it is not easy, brands, manufacturers and worker representatives need to engage in collective action: to agree on a common purpose, ensure ownership, and work in a harmonized and aligned way to ensure that audit and improvement programs actually lead to long lasting solutions.
The SAC’s large membership base and industry relationships allows it to play a leadership role in these harmonization efforts. For example, we have formed the Alliance with our key partners Textile Exchange, ZDHC, and the Apparel Impact Institute to align and connect our respective tools and methodologies to drive deeper impact across the value chain.
We also use the Sustainable Labor and Social Program (the SLCP, which was incubated at the SAC) as the backbone of our Higg Facility Social and Labor Module (Higg FSLM) tool. In addition, we are closely involved in other sector-wide conversations and initiatives that focus on consolidating the myriad of tools, questionnaires and improvement programmes into harmonized and industry-wide supported approaches. To accelerate change, boost impact, transform the industry, and meet the challenging targets for a sustainable and decent sector, the sector needs to come together to act collectively, and that is at the heart of SAC’s current strategy.
A third powerful trend is transparency. When I started working on social sustainability issues 12 years ago, it was really hard to talk about transparency with industry partners. Currently, many brands at least share their factory lists publicly, and more and more factory level results on environmental and social compliance are available in the public domain. I have experienced firsthand in Cambodia how transparent reporting drives change at factory level. I am very excited about the SAC’s transparency program. It was launched earlier this year for the MSI tool, and there is a clear pathway to expand the program to all Higg tools. As a result, both factory and brand performance on social and environmental data will be publicly available, and consumers can use it to inform their decisions. Broad acceptance and use of the program will be key to accelerate improvements across the industry.
Finally, upcoming legislation at EU level as well as in individual Member States, will raise the bar in the industry on mandatory due diligence, green claims and the uptake of the product environmental footprint methodology and push for many brands and companies to provide more transparency. EU legislation is on the way that will also impact the production level, including manufacturing and corporate responsibility by, for example, setting minimum design requirements for textiles. It is crucial for companies to get ahead of this now, by implementing the right tools and programs to get a full view of their supply chains in order to improve them.
From your vantage point in your new role, how do you see the SAC helping to make progress on social and labor issues?
As I mentioned above, the SAC has a strong tool, the Higg FSLM, to measure factories’ performance on labor, including legal requirements, as well as the strength of a factory’s systems to support labor compliance and anything additional that a factory is doing to improve its workers’ lives. Leading brands are already using the FSLM across their factory base, and SAC members are expected to adopt the tool in the near future.
In addition, the SAC is also measuring how brands behave through the Higg BRM. Both tools offer key insight on where improvements are necessary, and are therefore essential to drive change. The more brands, retailers and factories use the tool, the greater the impact. At the SAC, we sit on a goldmine of data that can inform not only the industry, but also policy makers, on where the risks are, and what is driving change.
We are currently working on a collective action agenda to determine, amongst others, how we will strategically use our data to boost and accelerate change in practices, outcomes and policy. The Higg tools, our knowledge of the industry, and our broad membership base will enable us to forge collective action to transform jobs and livelihood for millions of workers.
As we facilitate cross-collaboration across the industry, we are focused on our role in strengthening our tools and data to drive collective improvements. Since we have such a strong presence in the industry, we are regularly asked to engage in activities beyond our mandate or capacity, including commenting on legal issues in the sector. However, our role in the industry is to facilitate collaborations in order to standardize value chain social and environmental sustainability measurements for all sector participants, and provide data through which brands, retailers, and manufacturers can identify areas for continuous improvement. Furthermore, as one of Policy Hub’s ecoystem partners, our main role is to provide data on our industry learnings that then inform policy making.
At the SAC, our membership consists of brands, retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, service providers, trade associations, non-profits, NGOs, academic institutions and more. For each type of member, what do you recommend is the one key thing each member type can do to ensure they are making meaningful contributions to protecting the well-being of their workers?
Brands and retailers should continue to harmonize and align their sustainability agendas, integrate them firmly with their sourcing strategies, and apply responsible business practices so that factories have the time and resources to reach sustainability targets.
Factories should cultivate trusting relations with union and worker representatives and ensure that they have a seat at the table and, through continuous dialogue, develop and strengthen systems on key things like freedom of association, wages, safety and HR, to support decent jobs and strong business outcomes.
Other stakeholders should maximize collaboration, join forces, and create as much collective knowledge as possible to support the needed transformational change so that the sector becomes known for truly decent jobs, and climate neutral/positive social and economic development.
To learn more about the tools Esther mentioned above, we invite you to read more about the Higg BRM and Higg FSLM. To be a part of our collective movement for industry-wide change, JOIN US at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.