Time Right for Change

Kuruvilla explains how consumer connectedness can improve workers' lives
Friday, January 20, 2017

Imagine finding a shirt you like in a store, pulling out your smartphone and photographing a code on the tag, and up pops a report of the labor practices involved in the garment’s manufacture.

You would see almost instantaneously whether it was produced in a sweatshop.

That’s one of the changes advocated by Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla, ILR’s Andrew J. Nathanson Family Professor in Industrial and Labor Relations, who said in a Thursday ILR Online webcast that the clothing industry is at a tipping point that could bring more consumer awareness to the issue.

“That is the transparency we need that connects the millennial customer to the brand and the factory, and that way, if there is more transparency, the millennial customer can drive more change with purchasing decisions,” he said. This level of transparency is one of the key pillars of Cornell University’s New Conversations Project on Labor Practices in Global Supply Chains.

For the past 25 years, global apparel brands have instituted codes of conduct for their supply chain factories, and monitor themselves whether those factories are following codes of conduct regarding working conditions, or subcontract monitoring to third-party “auditors.”

But, improvements have been uneven and appear to have peaked, he said. New Conversations is designed to find more sustainable practices in global supply chains in the apparel industry.

The project, organized two years ago, will hold a conference April 10 entitled “Current Developments in Labor Practices in Global Supply Chains: Lessons from the Accord and Alliance, and The Future of Trade in a Trump Administration.”

The goal of the event, Kuruvilla said, is for stakeholders committed to improving labor standards in global supply chains to learn from research on the Accord and Alliance, industry improvement pacts that followed the Rana Plaza tragedy. It is also to explore roles that multiple stakeholders can play and to examine the future of trade in the Trump administration.

Better working conditions in global apparel factories requires cooperation between different stakeholders, better relationships between brands and suppliers and more transparency, he said.

Other aspects, such as trade policy, are also relevant, Kuruvilla said during the webcast, focused on why private regulations to protect clothing industry workers have failed.  

“In addition, a key problem in this industry has been that this whole idea of improvements in working conditions in global supply chains has not been well integrated into sourcing decisions by many brands,” he said.

“It means if improvements in working conditions as criteria have not been as important as other criteria such as cost, quality, speed of delivery, etcetera. It needs to be.”

But, the time is right for change, he said. More and more, consumers are paying attention to such issues, including wages.

“I think as long as we have some consumers -- and it is a small group -- who are vocal about these things, that is what drives companies to improve their performance.”

Related story: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/news/new-approach