International working standards in the apparel industry

This article was inspired by a recent article discussing Amazon’s business practices in developing countries; looking at how Amazon chooses to do business with suppliers who have been banned (blacklisted) by others in the fashion industry.  

We explore compliance, labor, working conditions, pollution crackdown, and transparency.  


The garment industry in the USA is valued at over US $2.4 trillion, employs millions of workers worldwide, with documented labor rights and environmental abuses.

Social compliance refers to how a business treats its employees, the environment and their perspective on social responsibility. It refers to a minimal code of conduct that directs how employees should be treated in regard to wages, work hours and work conditions.

In countries around the world, factory owners and managers often fire pregnant workers or deny maternity leave; retaliate against workers who join or form unions; force workers to do overtime work or risk losing their job, and turn a blind eye when male managers or workers sexually harass female workers.

As consumers become more socially conscious than ever before, they are demanding greater visibility and transparency from the products they purchase.

By investing in vendor compliance solutions, retailers and brands can avoid costly litigation, reduce downstream risks and costs, and win market share by building a positive public image. 

Labour and Working Conditions

Addressing labor issues in the apparel industry is significantly important due to customers’ increasing awareness of poor working conditions and growing labor crises in developing/developed countries around the world.  

With unsafe working conditions in apparel factories around the world leading to organizations demanding policies to drive change.

Apparel brands and retailers must focus on improving labor and working conditions to avoid disasters and litigations.

Garment workers are often forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. During peak season, they may work until the late evenings or early mornings to meet the fashion brand’s deadline. 

Their basic wages are so low that they cannot refuse overtime – aside from the fact that many can be fired if they refused to work overtime. In some cases, overtime is not even paid at all. 

Pollution Crackdown

It is well documented that there are many environmental issues surrounding the textile and apparel industry, that are responsible for sparking protests and concerns from the public.

To ensure that the company meets standards of various environmental laws, it may be necessary to conduct a compliance audit. 

Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are found in 70% of garments.   Cotton is found in 40% of all clothing.  Both have been criticized for their environmental impacts.  It is documented that

In 2015, 73 percent of the total material used to make clothes ended up incinerated or landfilled, according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  10.5 million tonnes of clothing ended up in US landfills in 2014.

Every year, the textile industry alone spits out 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases — more than all marine shipping vessels and international flights combined — and consumes 98 million tons of oil. Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of clean water, and on the whole, the apparel industry accounts for 10 percent of all greenhouse emissions worldwide.

In 2017, China dispatched inspectors in as many as 30 provinces around the country and 80,000 factories—roughly 40 percent of the factories in China—have been fined, charged or closed because of their emissions.

The incomprehensible scale of the fashion industry and the sheer quantity of fabrics that are produced for clothing each year highlight the effects fashion has on our environment.  

SAC and the Higg Index

In 2009, Walmart and Patagonia began unlikely partnerships that lead to the creation of the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Collation). 

The Higg Index was created by the SAC as a suite of tools that enables brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes—at every stage in their sustainability journey—to measure social and environmental sustainability performance. The Higg Index is the leading assessment for standardized supply chain sustainability assessment.

Today, the Higg Index comprises tools for every step of a product’s life, for designers, factory managers, and retailers. 

It delivers a holistic overview that empowers businesses to make meaningful improvements that protect the well-being of factory workers, local communities, and the environment.

That coalition now has more than 250 members, and more than 10,000 manufacturers use its main offering, the Higg Index tool suite, for measuring sustainability. 


Transparency builds confidence among consumers who care about the ethical business practices of brands.

By investing in vendor compliance solutions, retailers and brands can avoid costly litigation, reduce downstream risks and costs, and win market share by building a positive public image. 

Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, “If you’re not working at solving these problems in a transparent and active way, I think the reality is your customer’s going to drop away in time,” she said. “So, to me, it’s kind of a no-brainer at this point.”

Author: Jeffrey Clark

A management professional with 25 years global experience working with fortune 500 and speciality brands, specializing in lean manufacturing, product, supply chain management, procurement, sourcing, and operations. Proven proactive leadership, vision, creative, and successful strategic business skills to drive revenue and profit growth in highly competitive domestic and global markets. A strong relationship builder, functions effectively as an integral member of a cohesive senior executive team. Proven ability to source, identify and capitalize on emerging trends and niche market opportunities.