Ethix Ventures Interviews Bjorn Claeson: Growing A Sweatfree Movement through Purchasing Consortium

Ethix Ventures Interviews Bjorn Claeson: Growing A Sweatfree Movement through Purchasing Consortium

A long-time advocate for worker rights, Björn Claeson was one of the first interviewees for our Sweatfree Tribe series (see the post from 2009). At the time he was the Executive Director of Sweatfree Communities. When the International Labor Rights Forum took SweatFree Communities on as project, Björn continued there. Now, a new entity is being organized out of these efforts- the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. Björn will utilize his experience of working with advocates and organizers as he shifts to working with the community of public entities in the U.S. that make up the Consortium.

Ethix: What does the recent growth of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium mean for the sweat-free movement?

Björn Claeson: It’s another step towards a unified voice for all cities, states, and other public entities that want to make sure nobody can benefit from public contracts by denying the workers who make what they buy of their rights and rightful earnings.

It means we’re one step closer to coordinated action of public entities that seek to ensure suppliers of uniforms and other apparel comply with labor standards that are designed to protect workers from abuses, ensure their fundamental rights and decent wages.

It is part of an ongoing process of transforming the way we think about public procurement that holds the potential for much better conditions for workers over time.

Ethix: In The Consortium’s first months, is the vision starting to come together? Are cities and states beginning to work together, and what benchmarks should we in the movement use to measure success over time?

Björn Claeson: Yes, the collaboration is beginning and must of course be nurtured. For example, one of our members conducted a factory investigation in 2011 and found significant violations of their procurement code of conduct, including legal violations. Working with the independent monitoring organization, the Worker Rights Consortium, they turned to the factory and then to the brand (a large buyer at the factory) with a plan for corrective action. Unfortunately, neither the factory nor the brand was very cooperative. So now they want to make the case known more widely among our members to see what kind of impact we can have together. The Consortium will help them to get the word out and, as necessary, coordinate follow-up action. We hope to cover this issue in the very first issue of our newsletter coming later in June, so stay tuned!

Our new factory database, Sweatfree LinkUp!, should facilitate this process of collaboration by showing us the factories that make the most uniforms and other apparel for public entities and by helping us map who buys what from whom. In terms of benchmarks, you can look to the volume of public entities, vendors, manufacturers, and factories in the database. At the launch, there will be about 100 factories, 40 manufacturers, and 20 vendors that sell many hundreds of products in the database. We hope those numbers will grow over time as public entities, companies, and workers and worker advocates use the database as a tool for transparency and accountability. By the way, Ethix Merch was the first company to contribute a significant amount of supply chain information to the database, and we hope many more companies follow suit.

Ethix: Are you aware of any large “mainstream” vendors or factories beginning to take notice or change their behavior in response to the launching of the Consortium?

Björn Claeson: Vendors or manufacturers, yes. I am not sure about factories. But companies really started to take notice of the sweatfree movement long before there was a consortium. I do think some of the “mainstream” companies have responded to the sweatfree movement by becoming more transparent and, in some cases, developing their “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) agenda.

Now, as any buyer for a public entity knows, factory disclosure is still a big issue for many companies in the uniform and work wear industry and the growth of corporate CSR departments is often far from the solution we need. CSR is sometimes less about social responsibility and more about “brand risk management.” But this is a movement for the long-haul and the fact that we are beginning to be able to map the industry and know where some of the products bought with taxpayer dollars come from is a testament to the work of many activists in the sweatfree movement and the work of buyers and others who work for public entities.

I am not sure most companies would have taken any steps toward supply chain responsibility had it not been for the demands of ordinary people in communities across the country. With the Consortium we hope to engage more directly with companies both proactively and in response to worker rights complaints. That engagement, both the proactive and reactive, has already started, though it’s too early to discuss results.

Ethix: As we have written about on our blog, Fair Trade USA is on a path toward certifying apparel. Do you anticipate that FTUSA-certified apparel will be promoted as an ethical standard by the consortium?

Björn Claeson: Well, the Consortium has not discussed Fair Trade USA’s certification program, but, in general, fair trade certified uniforms and workwear apparel could be a very welcome development for many government buyers who are struggling with the uncertainty of not knowing, or not knowing how to know, whether or not a certain product is made in labor compliant conditions. I have actually earlier proposed that it is better to field test a fair trade apparel label in the public procurement market, where it could be more or less a market entry requirement, than in the general consumer market, where it will compete with a plethora of sweatshop labels and the temptation to water down the standard could be significant.

If the certification program doesn’t work as it should, it is easier to discover the faults and make corrections in the public procurement market. Unlike individual consumers, government buyers are “super consumers” who have access to information and investigatory resources, and can use sanctions, such as termination of contracts, to compel compliance with binding standards. They are in a much better position than you or me to hold any certification program accountable to the standards it professes, especially if they are organized through the Consortium. I think the same goes for a union label, which could be evidence of labor compliance for government buyers, even as they retain the option to investigate actual compliance.

The first step for the Consortium is a new model code of conduct and sweatfree procurement policy, which we are developing with the assistance of the Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University Law Center. I can’t yet discuss it, but it will be an exciting new standard based on the best of the current public sector codes of conduct. Our goals are to help harmonize the development of standards and requirements, to strengthen the procurement process itself so that only those who play by the rules can win contracts, and to make it very clear for companies what they have to do to comply labor standards. In this context a fair trade or union label could be introduced as evidence of compliance.

We look forward to your thoughts. You can also download the entire interview here.

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