Fashion’s human rights crisis: why emerging tech is key to transparency and accountability
By Valentina Hernandez Gomez
May 4, 2023
The fashion industry has been plagued by human rights abuses for years, a situation that has been further exacerbated by the global disruption of supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown and social distancing policies put into perspective the limitations of the social audit system, one of the few tools companies have had to work on improving ‘‘social’ sustainability within their ESG goals.
Although these issues existed prior to the pandemic, they are now gaining greater traction due to the heightened interest of consumers, and the growing pressure to strengthen due diligence standards across global jurisdictions.
The global landscape of human rights is not getting better either. According to the Human Rights Outlook 2023, there are several regions of concern across the globe where labour and political rights are at risk.
The prevailing message in this current climate is that companies can no longer afford to turn a blind eye, or continue to rely on outdated tools that have proven ineffective in combating the severe issues that remain.
Although technology alone may not be the definitive solution for the current state of human rights in the industry, emerging tech tools offer new pathways for uncovering abuses or risks, as well as increasing visibility across the supply chain.
The trends reach as far as suggesting that fashion is now entering an age of “hyper transparency” both in upstream and downstream supply chains.
Three key aspects in which tech tools are changing the existing landscape include supply chain visibility, media monitoring, and risk prediction and analysis. Let's take a closer look at each of these.
Supply Chain Visibility
Due diligence and corporate reporting legislations, such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive in the European Union, now require companies to have knowledge beyond their tier 1 suppliers.
Historically, the lack of visibility and enforceability of these regulations has allowed companies to evade accountability for non-compliance beyond their immediate trade partners.
Emerging technology tools can now be employed to track the entire supply chain from sourcing raw materials to the final product, which allows companies to identify any links to forced labour (such as Xinjiang cotton) or human rights violations, and take appropriate action.
The Laundering Cotton report from Sheffield Hallam University is a perfect example of why visibility is key for companies to assess their exposure to risk, and how not-knowing beyond their direct suppliers is a considerable burden for reputational risk.
One of the main arguments against the social audit system is that it has proven to be ‘ineffective and misguiding’, and even reinforces existing flawed business models.
Tools like whistleblowing applications and hotlines complement in-person audits. However, it has also been documented that they’re not always accessible for workers, or workers might not feel safe enough to use them.
On the other hand, social media, workers’ forums and messaging boards might showcase less-constrained views and paint a fuller picture. Using open source information might lead companies to capture unfiltered and more faithful information on workers conditions.
Risk prediction and analysis
Data analytics can help to identify patterns and trends across the supply chain, and at the same time this can alert potential human rights violations.
Predictability could be informed by different factors ranging from geographical-based risks to more site-specific risks.
What’s more, this allows companies to adopt policies even before a risk materialises.
Promising tools are being built and used in this ever-evolving field. Technology seems to be challenging power structures, but it’s important to remember that human rights due diligence needs to be an ongoing process, rather than a one-time-snapshot.
Technology can help, as Harvard’s report puts it, to create a dialogue between companies, stakeholders, suppliers and workers, and not just a monologue.