October 14, 2016 was World Standards Day, a time to commemorate the work of experts who have accumulated information with the goal of establishing standards for international trade and commerce.
One of the participants in World Standards Day is the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). ISO functions as a knowledge bank where companies in a variety of industries can learn the best practices for ensuring the safety and security of employees and resources.
ISO drafts documents which can be referred to by businesses or manufactures in order to ensure that they are effectively managing global challenges. For example, a newly established water treatment plant in Senegal may look to the ISO for how to best maintain their pipes to keep their water clean and the process as efficient as possible. In this way ISO is a partner in both the success of Senegal’s water security and the health of the people in the community who will also use the water for irrigating crops, washing, and of course drinking.
The ISO standards can be a very beneficial resource if they are sought after and implemented in a workplace environment. However, companies must voluntarily pursue these standards and often choose to cut corners especially in developing countries with demanding industries.
The garment industry in particular is often found guilty of an apparent lack of workplace standards—from faulty wiring that can lead to factory fires to the structural integrity of the buildings where many workers spend 12 hours a day. In 2013 one of those structures came crashing onto the front page of papers around the world when a factory in Dhaka collapsed killing over 1100 workers. Corners were cut in Dhaka because the demand for fast fashion creates a cumbersome load on factory owners to rapidly produce garments at low prices, which leads to a frantic and often unsafe working environment.
In the wake of the tragedy in Dhaka, western companies and consumers put pressure on the garment suppliers to establish safer working environments. As a result, in the three years since the disaster more than “80 percent of Bangladesh’s garment factories supplying global retailers have been found to be safe” (Hunter, 2015), and over 80 percent were up to date with building codes as well as fire and electrical safety measures.
Professor Osmud Rahman from Ryerson University proposes a system for the fashion industry not unlike the framework that the ISO offers for many other industries. You might thinks businesses should already have standards, but they don’t and their employees don’t know any different. A garment worker in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka might not have any idea that employees in other companies and industries can approach a manager with a suggestion or comment. The west found success in the formation of unions, yet the rate of organized unions in the garment industry has been estimated to represent only 5% of working professionals. Subsequently this is a number that must increase if the harsh conditions found in factory living are to subside.
Not everything will change overnight, wages are not going to increase, we won’t see fire exits pop up, and children will still be working in these factories. However, industry standards could be the catalysts for meaningful change. According to a survey by World Vision, an estimated 79% of Canadians care about where their clothing comes from. Consequently, companies could see increased sales if consumers can see that their clothing was created in an ethical work environment. Rahman suggests we introduce a type of system, like ISO’s, where a supplier receives a rubber stamp on the garment in order to indicate that it has passed a certain benchmark of standards. And remember, because of your wallet, you have the power to change the landscape of the fashion industry.
About the Author
Taylor is a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo with an interest in pursuing a career in international law and human rights. Specifically, he would like to combat the growing industry of human trafficking as it relates to any and all forms of forced labour. He sees writing as a fundamental launching point for both the development of awareness and the ideally the action that will follow. When he is not studying or writing he can be found bingeing podcast series and playing volleyball.