What’s a “Good Buy?”

According to the latest statistics released by the American Apparel & Footwear Association: In 2020, on average, every man, woman, and child in the United States spent $1,067.93 to buy 51.8 pieces of clothes and 5.8 pairs of shoes. Normally, those numbers are higher, but the COVID-19 pandemic reduced them.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us: “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (#206).

We have five times more clothing today than 40 years ago. We prize bigger, walk-in closets to accommodate our clothes. Clothing purchased this year will have seven uses on average before being discarded by the purchaser.

That’s a lot of clothing with a hefty impact on carbon emissions and the climate crisis. That’s a lot of stuff sitting in people’s closets. That’s a lot of that ends up in landfills.

Our overflowing landfills aren’t the only obvious signs of a “throwaway culture.” The purchase of discardable clothing lends itself to thinking of the workers as disposable as well.

The old notion of a “good buy” is that it is cheap and makes you look thin. A renewed notion: a “good buy” has ethical content. How was it sourced? How does it care for creation? How were the workers treated in the making of this garment? Were they paid a living wage?


In April 2021, 200 ICCR members and affiliates signed the ICCR Investor Statement Calling for Renewal of Bangladesh Accord, a month before the agreement was set to expire. A brief extension of the Accord secured protections for worker rights and remedy solutions for 2 million workers at 600 factories through August 31st. We are delighted that the Accord has been renewed and expanded for two years as the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. This new Accord takes effect on September 1, one day after the current Bangladesh Accord is set to expire. Like its predecessor agreement, the new International Accord is a legally binding agreement between companies and trade unions that aims to make ready-made garments (RMG) and textile factories safe. True to its new title, the new Accord aims to expand these safety standards and worker to other countries and labor markets using the Bangladesh Accord model.

A list of signatories to the International Accord is available here. While it includes American labels like Fanatics and PVH (owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Warner’s, Olga and True & Co., and licenses brands such as Kenneth Cole New York and Michael Kors), we are disappointed that U.S. companies like Costco, the Gap, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Target, TJX (owner of TJ Maxx and Marshalls), and Walmart are not yet signatories. This roster of American non-signatories aligns with those who refused to join the Accord in 2013, opting to create the now defunct Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety instead. Given that a fire swept through a garment factory, killing 17 people in Pakistan on Friday (8/27), worker safety remains an urgent concern and requires multilateral action. To sit on the sidelines is irresponsible.

Connecting the first section of this post with the second, I’d suggest that, while we, as consumers, can “buy better,” the Accord, a legally binding, multi-stakeholder agreement, advances commitments to worker safety in ways that corporate “codes of conduct” and audits cannot. If a company hasn’t signed it, the onus is on them to demonstrate that they are doing something better.

Please see the New York Times and Reuters articles for more background on the new Accord.

Raise the Alarm for Xinjiang

Over the last few years, casual readers of newspapers likely had vague awareness that China had imprisoned more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in camps in the country’s far-west Xinjiang province. While the Chinese government claims that the prisoners are volunteers who receive job training, human rights organizations allege that the ethnic minorities endure mass incarceration in “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate those ethnic minorities.

In the last six months, a barrage of new events and evidence clarified the situation with striking details. In June, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) published a detailed, 34-page report on a factory owned by the Hetian Taida Apparel Company that supplied university logo clothing to Badger Sportswear. The WRC found:

. . . the investigation Badger commissioned of Hetian Taida, in response to allegations of forced labor, was fatally compromised by the company’s rush to exonerate itself and its supplier; the company announced findings, supposedly based on worker interviews, before [emphasis added] interviewing any workers. [p. 2]

The U.S. State Department placed China on Tier Three (the lowest category) in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, dedicating considerable attention to Xinjiang. In early October, Time magazine reported that the U.S. Blocks Imports From 5 Countries Over Allegations of Forced Labor, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intervened on a Costco shipment from Hetian Taida. Days later, the WRC issued an Update on Forced Labor and Hetian Taida Apparel. Badger Sportswear only cut ties after CBP intervened on the shipment for Costco.  The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group for brands and retailers, issued a disappointing and underwhelming statement in response to this report that they were “deeply concerned” and called on the Chinese government to act. Also, Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a critical report entitled Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains offering specific guidance for companies and investors. A rare event these days, a bipartisan letter came from members of both the U.S. House and Senate calling on the CBP to investigate and block goods coming from the Xinjiang province.  

Last week, classified documents from the Chinese government were leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, providing policies and procedures inside the re-education camps.   The camps reportedly have watch towers, double-locked doors, and video surveillance “to prevent escapes.” The Chinese government apparently uses the camps to train its artificial intelligence programs for use in mass surveillance. The documents demonstrate that forced labor is an integral part of the Chinese government’s strategy for ideological conversion through industrialization. This is the largest incarceration of people based on an ethnic or religious identity since 1945.

A Toxic Combination for Apparel Companies and Consumers

China is the source of about 40% of all clothing sold in the U.S. The Xinjiang province grows 80% of China’s cotton, and, increasingly, the cotton is ginned there. Companies are erecting new factories in Xinjiang for additional steps in the garment-making process. Further, fabric from China is exported to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam—all significant sources of apparel sold in the U.S

Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights within company-owned operations and through business relationships. This obligation is delineated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Every brand and retailer that sources from China is exposed to the risks for forced labor in their supply chains: the harvesting and ginning of cotton, the spinning of the yarn, and the business relationships with corporations collaborating with the Chinese government to build and staff these new factories. The issue is not “simply” a violation of a retailer’s code of conduct or a reputational risk; companies risk a violation of U.S. law concerning importation of garments made with forced labor.

As public scrutiny of these issues increases, it will become increasingly clear that companies’ due diligence mechanisms (audits and codes of conduct) are insufficient. We at SGI would argue that, even in the best of circumstances, audits and codes of conduct, while necessary, are insufficient to protect human rights. In the circumstance of the Xinjiang province, such efforts are rendered ineffective.

We urge companies to take this risk seriously. It is not enough to lay low and wait; companies must engage proactively. We also urge the U.S. government to take meaningful action against the Chinese government in this matter. Even our faith communities have a responsibility to act. Events in support of “religious freedom” ring hollow if it does not also include action to respect the religious freedom of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Finally, as consumers, we are called to solidarity with those who endure forced labor. NPR’s Scott Simon put it well: “What does it have to do with us? Look down at our shoes, our phones and our toys.”

To learn more:

ICCR Statement of Support for new Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

As investors shareholders engaged in dialogues with retailers, we are heartened by last week’s announcement that global unions and companies signed an agreement to extend the Accord for Fire and Building Safety for an additional three year period in force after May 2018. This is great news!  Investors, including those from SGI, have played an important role in supporting the Accord, assessing its progress and recommending areas to be strengthened going forward.

ICCR’s statement applauding the agreement is found here.

SGI members signed onto the April 2017 investor statement on the 4th Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Tragedy.  Our recommendations included:

  • Accord companies and trade union representatives agree to extend the Accord for the period of time needed to remediate systemic issues that still threaten worker safety and livelihood.
  • Broaden the current scope of the Accord to include; i) a focus on freedom of association and collective bargaining and integrate this into the Complaints Mechanism process and ii) additional parts of the supply chain where similar risks exist such as washing, dying, fabrics, leather and home textiles.

The new agreement responds positively to these recommendations.  Over the past four years, investor activism has made a difference in providing support and urging further action to make sure that garment factories are made safer now and in the future.

Bangladesh Accord illustrates power of multi-stakeholder collaboration to address supply chain issues

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Rana Plaza, April 24, 2013, the Bangladesh Investor Initiative has actively engaged companies sourcing  in the garment sector.   While substantial progress has been made in the last four years, there is still a great deal to be done before the sector is truly transformed where workers are assured of safe and healthy workplaces.  Click for ICCR’s press release which includes a link to the investor statement.