Sustainable textiles in times of COVID – laying bare the need for change

On 15th October, FTI Consulting organised a webinar on sustainable textiles to address the need for change in a sector that has been hard hit by COVID. The webinar featured representatives from the EU institutions, including MEP Lara Wolters (S&D, Legal Affairs Committee) and Madelaine Tuininga, Head of Unit Multilateral Trade and Sustainable Development Policy in DG Trade; from the European apparel and textiles industry (Mauro Scalia, Director Sustainable Businesses, EURATEX); as well as from international organisations (Dan Rees, Director of Better Work, International Labour Organisation) and business consulting groups (Amrit Singh Deo, FTI Consulting India). This discussion was very topical in light of the ongoing discussions on EU mandatory due diligence legislation.

The webinar panellists first pointed out the many challenges that the textiles sector was already facing before COVID, which have only been exacerbated by the unfolding crisis. Although the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh served as a wake-up call to drive change, considerable work still needs to be done. The causes of this sector’s vulnerability are multifaceted. To name a few, they include traceability and supply chain complexity as well as the lack of a ‘safety net’ for garment workers outside of Europe. What makes it even more difficult for business is the myriad of existing schemes, that are meant to certify that sustainability standards are met. These cause additional administrative burdens and what the sector calls ‘audit fatigue’.

Numbers speak for themselves: according to the ILO Monitor, there was a drop in global working hours during Q2 2020 equivalent to the loss of 490 million full-time jobs. Searching for a silver lining in hard times, our panellists noted that this crisis has offered an opportunity to rethink the way supply chains are organised. For example, it has shown that very often the most resilient companies are those equipped with strong due diligence having thoroughly identified supply chain risks and put in place risk mitigation strategies. Equally, the crisis has highlighted the importance of sustainable corporate governance and the need to change the way we define companies’ roles and their responsibilities towards wider society.

When discussing potential solutions to these challenges, the panellists agreed on the urgency of bringing efforts one step further. On the regulatory side, the EU will propose horizontal environmental and human rights due diligence legislation in 2021. Under this new framework, companies will have to identify actual and potential adverse impacts throughout their supply chains on human and environmental rights and implement processes to address them. In this context, the issue of proportionality – with regard to SMEs – was discussed. The importance of harmonising existing business certification schemes and their value in the due diligence process was also highlighted. Speakers also flagged that due diligence legislation in the EU alone is not enough. Capacity building in the countries where the textiles are manufactured are as important in order to better respond to disruptive events such as the ongoing COVID pandemic. To that end governments, civil society and business can make important contributions.  

The panellists concluded on the fundamental importance of adopting a multistakeholder approach to sustainable textiles in which everyone has a role to play in bringing about change, be it as policymakers, industry or civil society members or simply as individual consumers.

Author: Astrid Soriano works on Sustainability at FTI Consulting Brussels

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries,vits affiliates, or its other professionals.

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