While sustainability is rightfully the forefront of conversation in fashion, the industry generally focuses on only the final stages of production. We don’t often stop to think about the earlier stages of production or consider ‘who farmed the cotton that made my clothes?’
But the cotton farming sector dominates employment within the fashion industry. The International Labour Organisation estimates that the cotton farming sector alone employs 350 million people worldwide. According to the Household Labor Force Statistics by TurkStat, more than 70% of local agricultural wage earners report working in seasonal jobs, and a mere 21% of all wage-earners in agriculture are formally employed. In short, workers in agriculture face low wages, work long hours, and commonly work informally, regardless of their migrant status.
The size and complexity of fashion supply chains means that the traceability of each tier becomes more and more opaque. With less traceability, workers at the very beginning of supply chains, like those working in cotton farms, are at the greatest risk of exploitation.
As a primary source of raw materials, Turkey presents particular risks to fashion brands due to the low levels of labour regulation at the farm level and large vulnerable migrant population seeking unskilled seasonal employment in the cotton fields. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased worker vulnerability and employer financial pressures, making the risk of exploitation particularly acute at this time.
We as an industry need to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect not only our garment makers, but every single person involved in the supply chain.
We are excited to announce a new world-first program called Sağ Salim that we have been working on in partnership with Sydney based Precision Solutions Group (PSG) and our denim supplier Bossa denim, that is designed to:
- Support the earliest stages of supply chain
- Actively seek out instances of exploitation
- Put methods in place to solve them
Sağ Salim (meaning ‘safe and sound’) is an ongoing due diligence program developed to support the most vulnerable workers in the garment industry’s supply chain. The program actively seeks out instances of deliberate exploitation, slavery, and unsafe working conditions and puts methods in place to resolve them. The areas targeted in the pilot include, but are not limited to, organic cotton farms in Turkey from which Outland Denim’s cotton is sourced.
After extensive initial research, planning and local engagement, Sağ Salim was officially launched on 15 May 2020. It commenced with a three-week communications campaign which distributed COVID-19 resources and information, before opening a grievance service to facilitate two-way engagement with workers. IN2, a strategic communications provider based in Turkey, was engaged to support the program and their expertise and local knowledge have been pivotal to rapidly establish rapport with the workers, in their local languages.
Another key partner in the pilot process is Bossa Denim, Outland Denim’s primary supplier. Bossa Denim has been actively involved in environmental and ethical issues since its inception in 1951, implementing a wide range of projects to further cement its place in the sustainable and ethical fashion industry, such as waste recovery systems, utilisation of natural and safe dyes, and carbon dioxide reduction studies.
So far, the program has reached over 581,000 people, resulting in reports of pay discrimination, lack of safe drinking water, and unsafe working conditions due to a lack of personal protective equipment. The program allows facilitators to act promptly in responding to and investigating such grievances, which are then reported to appropriate brands, government bodies and NGOs for resolution. Outland Denim is also working closely with its suppliers to address reported issues.
“I really don’t know if I have rights or not. We always work for less wages and are treated poorly. All of these issues are not only my individual problems but every worker's problem. Regarding COVID-19, no preventative measures were enacted or enforced at work. Often, we are forced to work during the weekend, with no vacations and during the curfew as well…In the ﬁelds, the high temperature causes sunburn.” - One of the grievances submitted through the Sağ Salim program.
But Sağ Salim isn’t just about eliminating exploitation from only Outland Denim’s supply chain. No cotton farm produces cotton exclusively for only one brand, and so it only makes sense that brands come together to combat this problem that impacts the entire industry. With the program’s pilot complete, we’re now looking for like-minded brands, excited to collaborate and join with us on this program.
Following the completion of the pilot program in August, membership to the Sağ Salim Labour Monitoring Program is opening to other brands sourcing their cotton from Turkey. The program has been designed to operate as a collaboration between brands; the more brands that participate and therefore contribute to its funding, the more powerful Sağ Salim will be.
There’s no brand on the planet, even us, who are perfect, but we believe that acknowledging potential areas of weakness is something all businesses need to publicly do, to be authentic and to continually have a greater positive impact.