Forgotten No More: A New Move to Protect Women in the Fashion Industry's Supply Chain

A garment factor in Brazil. photo:   ziviani /shutterstoc

A garment factor in Brazil. photo:  ziviani/shutterstoc

Hollywood, media, politics and other high-profile sectors don’t own the monopoly on sexual harassment—just the spotlight.

While the avalanche of publicity about abuses by powerful men is applause-worthy, it does provoke a question: Will the media and public outrage ever focus on the mistreatment of women with less glamorous backdrops?

A case point: The same problems (and worse) pervade the garment industry, which employs 60 to 75 million people worldwide. In fact, violence, exploitation, sexual harassment and other abuses are constant threats to female workers, who make up 75 percent of the industry’s workforce. Even after years of attention to improving garment industry supply chains and worker protections, these problems are still rampant.

So where is the garment industry’s #MeToo moment—the tipping point that blows up the issue in the media, causing rules to change and heads to roll?

Fortunately, there are funders and nonprofits working to bring just that type of blinding light to the dark corners of the garment industry, along with transparency about a range of other issues that affect some of the world’s most exploited workers. The health, happiness and security of tens of millions of women are at stake.

One grantmaker on the case is the Swiss-based C&A Foundation, the charitable arm of the international retail clothing chain C&A. As we've reported, the funder supports initiatives to improve the fashion industry by creating more transparency in the industry’s supply chains.   

Recently, the foundation’s Brazilian office issued a call for proposals for initiatives that use information and data to shed new light on working conditions in the fashion industry in that country.

“We are looking for innovative ways to improve working conditions in the fashion industry in Brazil,” says Giuliana Ortega, executive director of the Brazilian C&A Foundation, Instituto C&A. “Transparency can contribute a great deal by disseminating reliable and publicly accessible information and by encouraging accountability, making working conditions a priority in the sector.” (See the RFP here.)

This latest initiative builds on the C&A Foundation’s unusual twist on work for gender justice—taking it on in supply chains.

In 2016, the C&A Foundation, Gender at Work, and the Global Fund for Women launched a joint initiative to end gender-based violence and empower female garment workers in South Asia, “with a focus on major apparel sourcing countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and Vietnam.” The initiative and its programs also focus on teaching female garment workers their rights, discovering how they can secure those rights, and determining ways in which they can become leaders for fostering systemic change.

C&A Foundation pledged €1.5 million to support the initiative's launch. The foundation, which is working to change the fashion industry to make it more just, fair and equitable, believes “that to fundamentally transform fashion into a force of good, we must address gender inequality and violence against women.”

A few examples of the C&A Foundation's grantmaking in this regard include a four-year, €2.9 million grant to Ashoka for its Fabric of Change partnership, and a three-year, €450,000 grant to Breakthrough for its project building a system responding to sexual harassment and gender-based violence in the workplace and the apparel supply chain. (To get a broader picture of the type of work the C&A Foundation supports, check out its list of grants.)

These commitments, both longstanding and new, indicate that supply chain-focused initiatives are gaining momentum. With luck, hard work, and sustained backing from funders at this opportunity-rich moment, other factors may work in their favor. It must help that in the United States, a philanthropic powerhouse, attention to sexual abuse and harassment is at an all-time high.

We’ve seen the outrage over the abuses by men in high places. Is now the moment to invite millions of other women in less glittering trades to join U.S. women, center stage?