On blustery winter mornings, bundled under layer upon layer of clothing, I walk from Union Square to my office in the Flatiron District in New York City. As I plod up the blocks, I pass H&M, Zara, J.Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, and Joe Fresh, and I wonder if the garments I saw being made on factory floors in Asia a few months ago have arrived on the Fifth Avenue sale racks yet. At this time of morning, the stores stand dark and quiet with brightly colored vinyl decals and cardboard signs hanging in their windows advertising massive price cuts on the stoic winter wear to make room for the optimistic pastels and floral prints of spring.
I think about how those florals and pastels were probably being sewn in Cambodia during this winter’s upheaval when garment workers and law enforcement squared off in massive protests across the country, and I think about how wonderful it would be if, even for just one day, those windows would highlight the achievements the brands made in bettering the conditions in the factories where the merchandise was produced: “Fifteen percent fewer worker injuries this year because of our CSR programs in Myanmar” or “We are vigilant about paying minimum wage or better for garment workers in Dhaka.”
When I began really coming to terms with how much I want to advocate for the people who make products, a friend asked me whether I thought I was unique in my desire to understand the history of the products I consume. Perhaps I am the only person who walks up Fifth Avenue every day with the aforementioned reverie, but maybe people didn’t know they could dream of knowing the caloric content of the items they order on menus before there was data to support the labels and apps that deliver the transparency those dieters sought.
Better Factories Cambodia moved that seemingly out-of-reach desire one giant step forward today when it launched the first significant public disclosure website of its kind. The site indexes the ready-made garment-producing factories monitored by the International Labour Organization in Cambodia and evaluates a factory’s performance with a series of critical issues that align with the things a factory auditor measures when they conduct unannounced factory audits. While the effort pertains only to Cambodian factories, there are 60 million garment workers worldwide and half a million are in Cambodia.
BFC is the perfect group to do this work. When I worked with the Better Factories Cambodia program as a technology adviser last year, the ILO auditors I shadowed spent many hours in each factory they audited. Through the course of a day, amongst many other investigations, they walked up and down the rows of a garment factory and placed light meters on top of each stitch plate to measure the light quality at each sewing station. They used thermometers and microphones to measure temperature and decibels at multiple places on the factory floor. They went deep into the accounting records at a factory to ensure that double books are not being kept that might not accurately depict overtime and undocumented workers. They were unbelievably astute at discerning when workers had been coached to answer questions about their age and the hours they worked per day.
The ILO has been collecting data like this for a long time, but it’s been locked away and not formatted for public consumption and comparison. The Better Factories Cambodia public disclosure site is set up so anyone can search on a particular factor like child labor violations or undocumented strikes, or search through the results of a particular factory and get good information on performance.
The road to pulling off something like this is long and challenging. Developing a robust back-end to handle the data was one thing, but compounding this were very public debates between the garment producer’s association and Better Factories Cambodia that ensued for months. This effort could lead to actualizing my storefront window reverie or bring us standardized “nutrition labels” on garments, but it actually serves a much larger and disruptive purpose.
“The transparency program has already proven to be a powerful motivator for factories that had previously been resistant to change. For example, many factories are having their first ever fire drill–a change that can save lives. To see radical change, we need transparency to become the minimum standard, not a rarity, in the world of factory compliance,” according to Jill Tucker, program manager of Better Factories Cambodia.
Even beyond those important first fire drills, big changes that directly impact workers’ lives are taking place. Out of the 51 factories in this first report, one-third made positive improvements on a total of 25 measures. Out of the factories that were not paying bonuses, allowances, and leaves counting the entire period of employment, seven are now doing so.
One of the main things I took away from my experience in Cambodia was how much time and attention it takes to move factory owner and operators towards new ways of managing labor. This is a concrete example of how a market mechanism can inspire rapid change and how technology can intervene to help with a structure that allows for quick adoption and scaling and to usher in the type of transparency we desperately need.