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UN/CEFACT standards can enhance traceability for sustainable clothing

Do you know where your clothes come from? And how are they made? When you buy your clothes, are you looking for this type of information, but without much success?

The textile industry is a complex one, with value chains stretching around the globe. We all know that the bulk of the clothing and footwear we buy in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world, are mainly produced in factories in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. But value chains are still not transparent.

Labels mostly tell us the brand and content of what we buy. We know how much it costs us, but we don’t really know how much it truly costs to society, the environment and the people that made it.  

In fact, textile is one of the most polluting industries, responsible for more than 1,700 mln tons of CO2 emissions per year, and 90 mln tons of waste per year, of which 20% only are recycled, as estimated by the DFI and BCG Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report 2017. Not to mention the health impacts, as the Italian Textile and Health Association, reports that about 8% of skin diseases are caused by the chemicals used for dying the clothing and footwear we wear. Within the current trajectories for production and consumption worldwide, these pressures will intensify by 2030.

24 April 2018 will mark five years since the tragic collapse of a garment factory in Rana Plaza, where 1,100 lives were lost, and more than 2,000 injured. One year before, two fires at the Ali Enterprises factory and the Tazreen fashion factory had  killed more than 350 workers. Over the last years, good progress has been made, including through the implementation of initiatives such as the ILO and IFC Better Work programme and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance in the garment and footwear sector. But more remains to be done on safety risks, while inspection and compliance need to be enhanced to better safeguard the working conditions of the more than 60 mln workers in the industry, 75% of which are women.

To increase the industry’s ability to manage its value chain more sustainably, both consumers and producers must first be aware of the nature and magnitude of these risks, and of where these impacts are occurring. Improving the transparency and traceability has therefore become a priority. This will be a powerful tool to help businesses to manage risk, including for their reputation, and for consumers to make informed and responsible choices.

In 2017, based on the findings of its study Textile4SDG12, UNECE has launched a framework initiative and established a group of experts on transparency and traceability of value chains for sustainable textile.

The aim of the UN/CEFACT Initiative is to set up a multi-stakeholder policy platform to engage with key actors for transparency and traceability of value chains and produce a UNECE policy recommendation; analyze the business processes for the textile and leather sector and develop a tracking and tracing standard for sustainability in this area with implementation guidelines; and, finally, conduct pilots with interested member States and businesses to develop a programme for training and awareness on the recommendation and the standard. These outputs should guide the sector towards more responsible production and consumption patterns, in line with SDG 12 of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Possible approaches - in terms of supporting policies, regulations and standards - and innovative solutions will be discussed with representatives of key international organizations, private sector associations, governments, NGOs and think tanks, at the UN/CEFACT Conference, on this symbolic date of 24 April. As a follow-up, UNECE will partner with the International Trade Centre and the European Commission, for a Lab Debate at the next EU Development Days 2018, in Brussels next June. And UNECE will also launch a film on sustainable fashion featuring UNDP goodwill ambassador Michelle Yeoh at the UN High Level Political Forum in New York in July.

For more, see the programme of the events:

24 April: 31st UN/CEFACT Forum, Palais des Nations, Geneva: UN/CEFACT Conference on Traceability for Sustainable Value Chains: Textile and Leather Sector

5 June: EU Development Days 2018, Brussels: European Commission, UNECE, ITC Lab Debate on How to Achieve More Transparency and Traceability in Garment Value Chains