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Serving the garment industry as a CSR photographer

May 1, 2012

Writer : Robin Wyatt

As a CSR photographer with an ethically-driven conscience, I need to do careful research before approaching potential clients. Of late, significant interest in my work has come from the garment industry. Mention this sector to anyone with an interest in human rights, and they will often think of diminutive and probably underage Bangladeshi or Vietnamese workers crammed into suffocating shoebox-size spaces, beavering away in stifling heat in the absence of any consideration for safety on the part of their employers, and coming away from 12 or more hours’ work with less than a dollar to show for it. In other words, the archetypal ‘sweatshop’. Quite apart from their subhuman working conditions, factories like this have often been implicated in human trafficking and bonded labour cases as concern for human rights has grown in recent decades.

Sweatshops are no modern phenomenon. They were prevalent in countries that are now considered advanced economies as they industrialised, and existed even before then. Popular concerns over working conditions grew in the West during the Twentieth Century, particularly following the formation of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) in 1919. As the world economy entered the period of globalisation, outsourcing in manufacturing at first seemed to make the issue of sweatshop labour somebody else’s problem. From the garment industry’s perspective, one of the main appeals of sourcing garments from suppliers in developing world nations was that labour rules were far less tight there than they had become in the West. It was possible to spend less not only on wages but also on providing workers with conditions under which they would be happy working. In places where the paramount priority was to put bread on families’ tables, safety goggles and regulated air temperatures seemed like luxuries.

Accompanying globalisation, of course, was the era of the information superhighway and global communications interconnectedness. Consequently, where globally renowned brands were employing workers under sweatshop conditions, their customers began hearing about it. The growth in human rights consciousness that had already been in progress for several decades meant that the issue quickly became an international scandal.

Was this scandal enough to persuade the industry to put labour conditions before profit? Not immediately. The publicity on this issue was negative, but by no means devastatingly so. Part of the problem was that clothing lines did not operate the factories they sourced from themselves; they were (and still are) run by little-known supply companies, towards whom much of the blame was redirected. So when, in late-2007, Gap was accused of selling clothes made by young Indian children, it was able to respond by undertaking to increase its monitoring of compliance and also capitalised on the situation by announcing a ‘Sweatshop Free’ clothing label.

Labour conditions are a key part of companies’ obligations under corporate social responsibility (CSR), one of my main areas of business as a photographer. Sadly, a report from just-style released early last year concluded that the “silent majority” of the industry has “politely ignored” the demands of CSR. Nevertheless, I see clear exceptions, and to encourage a move from these ‘exceptions’ to such companies becoming ‘the norm’, the first sector-specific initiative under the United Nations Global Compact was agreed earlier this year, targeting the garment industry.

When I go to talk about CSR photography with garment companies, I often find myself meeting a senior manager from a department called something like ‘Ethical Compliance’. Is this about trying to show that they are policing their suppliers to ensure their actions do not land them in a sticky spot? Maybe that is the attitude in some companies, but I’m happy to say that it’s not universally so. I have been really impressed by some of the initiatives I’ve heard about, initiatives that show how these firms are taking their corporate social (and also environmental) responsibilities seriously and are keen to actually contribute to making this planet a better place to live in for all of us.

For example, when I recently met Marks & Spencer to discuss what they call ‘Plan A‘ (“Because”, they say, “there is no plan B”), I heard about a programme designed “to make M&S the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015″. That’s not something any business can achieve through acting as a policeman alone. Few supply companies will be able to meet all such expectations through their own efforts while remaining competitive on price. Significant input must come from the retailer itself.

An example of such input is one that can very usefully draw on my services: communicating to factory workers in ways that encourage behaviour change, leading to improved livelihoods. M&S puts it this way: “By trading fairly, we want to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in our supply chain and our local communities”. This is what it calls being a ‘fair partner’. Where such firms take this approach, I can help by creating compelling images set in circumstances that garment workers can relate to, that can be placed prominently on factory walls, in canteens and so on, that clearly show (let’s say) the benefits of hand-washing before eating or using a mosquito net to prevent Malaria.

H&M is another company that is making a big effort to show how sustainable it is becoming, trying to give M&S a run for its money in the ‘most sustainable major retailer’ stakes. Its Conscious Actions Sustainability Report 2011, released earlier this month,  tells us that the company has, amongst other things. trained over 442,000 Bangladeshi workers on their rights since 2008. Imagery such as I can provide can go a long way in such efforts among populations with limited literacy.

Something else that has impressed me during my recent discussions has been the efforts of the Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC), an apex body of Indian garment exporters, to work with suppliers (rather than brands based in Western countries) to develop a common social and environmental compliance code that’s locally owned and can position India as a preferred ethical sourcing destination. Project DISHA (which stands for Driving Industry towards Sustainable Human capital Advancement) is being keenly watched from various quarters, and if successful, it is hoped that it may be replicated in other countries. Such initiatives could similarly gain from my CSR photography services as they work to turn the paradigm of buyer-imposed compliance standards on its head. For example, I could use my social research skills to interact with stakeholders as they develop their ideas on compliance over the course of the process, and work with them to depict these visually. The end product could be a mobile exhibition or audio slideshow, serving as an educative tool owned by suppliers that would help them and their colleagues become compliance ready.

When I say that I’m a CSR photographer, what this means is often misunderstood. It tends to be assumed that I work in an advertising capacity for CSR departments, helping them improve their reputations by showing their customers that they are worthy corporate citizens. Sure, on this occasion, my work can involve something along these lines (though I’m discerning about who I’ll do this for). As I hope I’ve shown here, being a CSR photographer actually means so much more. As members of the garment industry take solid and meaningful steps in CSR, I’m happy to help them work with the beneficiaries of their initiatives to improve their livelihoods.

 Note: Robin Wyatt is a photographer serving humanitarian and environmental causes. His passion lies in merging philanthropic and photographic vision. He is also a cultural and travel photographer.
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