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Rights of Indian Leather Workers Systematically Violated

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Major footwear and garment brands react to serious human rights issues in their leather supply chain and promise collective action

Around 2,5 million workers in the Indian leather industry often face unacceptable working conditions that violate their human rights and seriously affect their health. Toxic chemicals used in tanneries often very negatively impact the health of the workers. Less known are the many labour and other human rights issues in the leather industry like wages below the stipulated minimum wage, child labour, the exploitation of home-based workers, the difficulty to organize in trade unions and the discrimination of Dalits (‘outcastes’).


DoLeatherWorkersMatter300‘Do leather workers matter?’

This is in short the plight of leather workers that is described in more detail in the report Do leather workers matter? Violating labour rights and environmental norms in India’s leather production.
The report explores labour conditions in the leather industry that are steeped into deep-rooted social inequalities in Indian society based on caste and gender discrimination. The main pillars of this study are literature research and field research at three production hubs that supply hides, leather, garments, accessories and footwear for export, namely Kolkata, Agra and the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster in Tamil Nadu. The report depicts labour conditions in a cross section of production units varying from homeworkers, tanneries, workshops in the informal sector to large modern export units. Of course these conditions do vary between production units.

Dalits (‘outcastes’) and Muslims make up the majority of the workforce in the leather industry. The low wages of the Dalit leather workers reflect their low status and the low status of their work in the leather industry, being dirty and polluting. In Tamil Nadu for example the official minimum wage early 2016 for leather workers is less than 2 euro per day, being less than half of the official wage of an apprentice in the textile industry. Often this minimum wage is not even paid.
Female homeworkers, responsible for a highly labour-intensive part of shoe production, are also among the most precarious workers. They face insecure and unprotected work, receive poverty wages and work under unsafe conditions. Moreover, children are often involved in leather production in India, mostly in the unorganized part of the sector, working in smaller tanneries and workshops.

Response of footwear and garment brands
A large range of major brands are sourcing footwear, leather garments, leather goods and accessories from India, which include H&M, C&A, Primark, Armani, ECCO, Esprit, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Walmart, Gabor, PUMA, Pentland, Prada and Marks & Spencer among many others. The report does however not look into the supply chains of specific brands, but more generally sketches human rights violations in leather and leather goods production in India.
India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments. The footwear sector in India specializes in medium to high priced leather footwear, particularly men’s wear. Almost 90% of India’s footwear exports goes to the European Union.

A draft version of this paper was initially shared with a wide range of companies and CSR initiatives. In a joint statement 12 member companies of the Ethical Trading Initiative (UK) welcomed the ICN report and said that ‘taken together we recognize the very concerning issues in the leather supply chain’. They also said to agree that ‘there needs to be a collective response to these issues’ and ‘We commit to working with international and national stakeholders to develop a strategic response to the issues in our leather supply chain.’
In total 19 companies, including the 12 ETI members like C&A, H&M, Primark, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Next, TESCO, Sainsbury and Pentland, reacted to the report as well as two CSR initiatives: the Leather Working Group and MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands). Most companies recognize the urgency to address the issues identified in this research and some shared concrete commitments to combat adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their supply chain.

Recommendations
The report contains nine recommendations to companies and CSR initiatives in the leather and footwear industry on (the need for): due diligence, mapping of supply chains, transparency, long-term business relationships, collaboration to increase leverage, the mandatory written contracts and equal treatment and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, company level grievance mechanisms and space for civil society.

Download the full report here.

*This story first appeared on IndiaNet

Are Your Sheets ‘Egyptian Cotton’?

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More U.S. retailers probe Indian supplier; Target cuts ties, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney launch audit of Welspun

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Egyptian cotton is prized for its softness and durability—selling points for retailers of premium sheets. PHOTO: AHMED GOMAA/XINHUA/ZUMA PRESS

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.,Target Corp. and other big U.S. retailers have become entangled in a controversy over whether one of India’s biggest textile companies has been supplying their stores with phony “Egyptian cotton” sheets.

Egyptian cotton, which since colonial times has been prized for its softness and durability, is often touted by stores that charge a premium for bed sheets or bath towels made with the material. It is found in everything, from Ritz-Carlton hotel sheets to Brooks Brothers dress shirts.

Last Friday, Target said it was pulling thousands of items off its shelves and cutting ties with Welspun India Ltd. after an investigation determined Welspun had used non-Egyptian cotton for about two years.

Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney Co. and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., three other big Welspun customers, said this week they were opening investigations into whether the company supplied them with authentic Egyptian-cotton products.

“We will aggressively pursue our investigation and take appropriate action, if needed,” Bed Bath & Beyond said on Wednesday.

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Welspun says it has commissioned an accounting firm to review its supply chain. “We are taking this situation very seriously….We won’t rest until this situation is resolved,” the Indian company said Wednesday.

Welspun’s share price has been sliced by half since the Target allegations surfaced last Friday. Mumbai’s stock exchange suspended trading in its shares Wednesday, as the stock fell to its maximum daily limit for a third-straight day.

Two-thirds of Welspun’s $898 million in sales for the year ended March 31 came from American retailers.

The textile maker also supplies towels for the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Rugby World Cup. Welspun declined to say how it sources its Egyptian cotton, saying only that it would be covered as part of its audit.

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Egyptian cotton is coveted for its softness and durability. But one of the world’s largest bedding manufacturers is being accused by Target of pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes. Photo: Getty.

Egypt produced less than 1% of the global cotton supply last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and its output has suffered amid political and economic upheaval in recent years. The country’s production is estimated to be 320,000 bales in 2016, or a third of what it produced in 2006, according to the USDA.

“There are a lot more Egyptian cotton goods than Egyptian cotton,” said Jordan Lea, co-owner of Eastern Trading Co., a Greenville, S.C., cotton-trading firm. “It’s impossible.”

Like Cuban cigars or Champagne wines, the defining characteristic of Egyptian cotton isn’t necessarily its quality but where it is grown. Any cotton harvested in Egypt—there are roughly 10 varieties grown—can carry the label.

“Long fiber” cotton sourced in Egypt is nearly indistinguishable from “long staple” cotton grown in other parts of the world once it becomes yarn or fabric, analysts say.

The Cotton Egypt Association, which licenses the trademark and certifies suppliers, estimates that 90% of products labeled “Egyptian cotton” are fakes but such public rebukes for mislabeling are rare.

In October, the government-supported group said it had discovered the genomic fingerprint for Egyptian cotton and launched a crackdown to combat knockoffs using DNA testing. Welspun was one of Cotton Egypt’s certified suppliers, having received the “Egyptian Cotton Gold Seal” for its bed linens, bath rugs and towels in April this year. The Egyptian association didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Egyptian cotton output has suffered amid recent economic upheaval. PHOTO: DE AGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

DNA testing, however, isn’t widespread, said a spokesman for Cotton Inc., which represents U.S. cotton producers and importers. That has left manufacturers and retailers mostly dependent on following the raw material through a complex supply chain. Each stage of a cotton product’s production, from yarn making to fabric cutting, often happens in a different country.

A search for “Egyptian cotton sheets” on Amazon.com turns up more than 2 million results, while one on Walmart.com turns up more than 24,000 results. Both figures include items sold by third parties. Target.com now lists just six items.

A Target spokeswoman said about 750,000 sets of sheets in stores between August 2014 and July 2016 under the Fieldcrest brand were labeled as made with Egyptian cotton.

She declined to say what triggered the company’s investigation into Welspun. The company said Welspun’s conduct “was a clear violation” of its policies.

The discovery underscores the difficulties of policing a global supply chain, where large retailers assemble a sprawling network of suppliers in developing countries to produce their goods at cheaper cost.

Global retailers often complain of poor quality and weak compliance at factories in India and Bangladesh, but the tangled networks make it tough to assess blame when things go wrong.

 

*This story first appeared on The Wall Street Journal

 

The E-commerce Sustainability Quotient Matrix

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E-commerce is changing the way people shop globally. Over the last two decades, multi-billion dollar e-commerce companies have come into being. Even as they see increasing scale and success, e-commerce companies have not turned their focus on environmental sustainability – in stark contrast to the initiatives on sustainable production and consumption undertaken by world’s leading retailers like Walmart and Ikea.

Realizing the acute need for the e-commerce industry to start thinking about their environmental impact, Sustainability Outlook delved deep into e-commerce operations to create an E-commerce Sustainability Quotient Matrix. The E-commerce Sustainability Quotient Matrix will help guide e-commerce companies to assess their preparedness and current state when it comes to environmentally sustainable operations. This matrix also provides an indicative path that e-commerce companies should embark upon to make their operations greener.

The E-commerce Scenario in India

E-commerce has suddenly exploded in the Indian marketplace. What was a non-existent concept ten years ago is now a $3.5 billion industry with about 20 million active users and an annual growth rate of 34%. Flipkart and Snapdeal have set targets of Gross Merchandizing Value (GMV) of $8 billion and $10 billion respectively for 2015 as the market gets ready to see even greater growth.

Environmental Impact of E-commerce vs. Brick- and- Mortar stores

Various studies have consistently underlined that e-commerce has a significantly lower environmental impact than physical retail stores. This is primarily driven by the reduction in consumer transport to and from the stores, which is replaced by last-mile delivery for e-commerce. Multiple products to different addresses are consolidated in the e-commerce last-mile delivery system and as the number of users of e-commerce grow the per-item footprint of last-mile delivery drops significantly.

To read the complete report, click here.

**This post originally appeared here.