Nina Smith: Fashion’s Hidden Supply Chains in India

Nina Smith: Fashion’s Hidden Supply Chains in India

Nina Smith, the CEO of GoodWeave International, on invisible worker communities from India who work for global fashion brands and why the two-sided opacity needs to be erased

Last week, at the 2019 edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the tenth anniversary of the industry’s most influential annual event that discusses problems and solutions around sustainability, one of the speakers on a panel that debated Hidden Supply Chains was Nina Smith. The CEO of GoodWeave International that helps suppliers transform their supply chains and improve production oversight, working through multiple offices in India, Smith made some poignant remarks about child labour. On its official website, GoodWeave lists child labour as the number one risk in supply chains for businesses.

Alongside co-panelists Anindit Roy Chowdhury, the India programme manager of C&A Foundation and Julia Ormond, actor and founder of ASSET that works on human rights and against slavery, Smith expressed her observations on hidden workers in Sikandrabad and other areas of Uttar Pradesh. According to a Campaign Against Child Labour (CAC) study, India’s biggest hub of child labour is Uttar Pradesh which accounts for almost 20 per cent of the country’s child labourers. Not all work for the fashion industry of course. But this figure includes men, women and children who work in international fashion supply chains (not Indian design houses) yet are not visible. Non-regulated, disempowered in terms of labour rights and wages, these invisible communities, said Smith, are “a big negative for the world.”

In an emphatic interview on the sidelines of the summit, Smith—who has developed a perspective on labour communities in India in the two decades and more she has been visiting the country—talks about the need to change work culture in fashion businesses. And why the opacity in supply chains must be wiped out. Edited excerpts.


Photo: Nitin Gera, ©GoodWeave

GoodWeave lists child labour as the number one risk in supply chains for businesses.

In your inherent understanding of working for many years in India through GoodWeave on supply chain issues for international brands, do you get a broad signal of injustice and lack of ethics?

Yes, there are pockets where injustice goes on. If you look at figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), out of 152 million child labourers in the world are, more than ten million are in India. The Asia Pacific region has the second highest number of child labourers next to Africa,  and I am sure India has large pockets of forced labourers within these communities. In India there is so much informality in these sectors that it leads to a lack of regulation and protection. According to the ILO, over 80 per cent of the workforce in India are informally employed, which also means they are not governed by regulatory norms, have no guaranteed wages, are not protected by corporate codes of conduct, are not even necessarily seen as part of the supply chain.

But India is also changing, so there is modernisation. At GoodWeave, we are talking with businesses in a way that the entire supply chain is covered in terms of labour rights. So the counterpoint to my initial observations is that we have more than 100 business partners in India who are enlightened, they are doing great work. They care about these issues of hidden supply chains. They support social programmes and not just good working conditions.

Something has obviously shifted in India in the last 20 years, what according to you has changed in India when it comes to supply chain communities?

I think at least on the business side—and I mostly come in contact with small and medium-sized   export suppliers—a narrative has built around doing good business. Earlier nothing was regulated. Twenty years back for instance, we couldn’t even get exporters to talk to us about child labour. Our founder Kailash Satyarthi (the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and child rights activist from India), tells stories about death threats against him when he exposed the issues in the early days. Those days are gone. Now, I think there is a real movement to do things right. It is only a matter of time before it takes off in a big way.

A cluster of concerns resides under the term sustainability. Do you think the worker population in India, the weavers, manufacturing labourers, craftspeople understand anything about sustainability?

No, mostly they don’t. Especially the workers who are linked with the fashion industry, there is a real lack of awareness. You heard my story on the panel about workers from a village on the outskirts of Sikandrabad, where even the primary supplier who outsources orders to sub-contracts cannot see the entire supply chain, especially down to the hidden home-based workers. These women and men are poor and fully reliant on the next order that comes their way. But they don’t know anything about buyers, or anything about the labour rights requirements the brands must be putting in place before the order is given out. There is a huge disconnect.

The opacity goes in both directions, even buyers don’t know anything about the craftspeople or the labour force who is working for them and creating their products. They are at least empowered to make inquiries but they don’t.

Do you think organisations like yours should work on making both sides aware about products being created?

Often, when we work with the apparel workers—adults or children who have been rescued—I ask this question. Would you want the buyer to know who made it? And everyone says yes, they want to see and be seen and known. Of course this needs to be explored further. I also think there are other urgent issues around why most of these workers are not able to send their children to school. If something that they make is available in a major department store nearby and they can’t even send their children to school, it is net negative for the world. We need to make this right.

In India, the descending scale of empowerment among hidden supply chains also involves women. How do you view gender-based problems?

When we get true supply chain visibility, we can see that most of the home-based workers are women and girls.  Most international brands aren’t even aware of these workers’ role in their production, so they won’t know if there are female workers, male workers, or child labourers. In addition, women home-based workers are dependent on their husbands to interact with the sub-contractors, to receive wages. If  we can build a culture in the industry around home-based workers being seen as part of the formal supply chain, it would make a difference. At the moment, the distance and the lack of visibility also means they are three or four times removed from the knowledge about how to produce a particular product. They are not a position to negotiate their wages, are not able to form a collective that would help them help them on various issues.

International fashion brands don’t know who is making their products—is it because they don’t ask?

Lack of transparency is caused by a variety of factors, including that the suppliers themselves don’t necessarily see to the bottom of their production. Suppliers can benefit from working with an organisation like ours, so we can help them understand and claim their full production capacity, which can lead to increased business. Also, they can ensure clean supply chains to their buyers to ensure long-term business relationships. GoodWeave advocates that brands accept the important role that home-based workers play in the making of their goods instead of cutting off orders or punishing suppliers that outsource. Those predominantly women workers really need the employment being offered. We enable brands to turn that employment into good employment for adults, and to offer assurance to their consumers. The benefits of that knowledge go down the chain. This kind of work is not widespread yet but you have to start by creating examples.

Banner image by Nitin Gera, ©GoodWeave