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The story behind Zara’s human rights score

What happened?
In August 2011, popular fashion brand Zara was all over the news. It was being accused by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour of human rights violations. The complaints were caused by the poor working conditions in a sewing studio in Brazil, in which workers had to work for 14 hours a day in an unhealthy and unsafe working environment. This sewing studio was a subcontractor of Zara’s suppliers. According to the newspapers, the labour was forced, which made it a matter of slavery. It is one of the few known cases in which a company is being held responsible for the acts of its suppliers.

Two weeks after these shocking press releases, Inditex, brand owner of Zara, published an article that included new measures for its entire supply chain in Brazil. Partially based on these tightened policy, Inditex could reach an agreement with the Brazilian accusers in december 2011. The Brazilians agreed to accept compensation of 1.8 million dollars, instead of their original claim of 10,7 million dollars. The settlement was a result of the desire to avoid long judicial procedures.

Despite this, Zara scores relatively high?
In Rank a Brand’s ranking system, every brand is rated on its climate policy, environmental policy and labour conditions. All fashion brands are ‘asked’ 16 questions, 4 of which are focused on climate change, 4 on environmental policy and 8 on labour conditions. In short, this means that 50% of the questions relate to labour conditions.

Zara has a total score of 9/16, which is relatively high. This is mainly because they score 7/8 score on the labour conditions section.

Strange, you may think. If Rank a Brand sets all these criteria in the area of labour conditions, how is it possible for Zara to score relatively highly? What kind of ranking system is that?

First of all, our rankings are only based on information that is either on the brand’s website, or on the website of its owner (in this case, Inditex) – so our rankings are also de facto ratings on transparency. That’s why we don’t send out surveys or request additional information – all information on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should be available for all consumers. Only then they can make conscious choices.

But that doesn’t mean we just take the information on the websites at face value. That would only endorse and encourage greenwashing, a.k.a. telling fairy tale stores in order to create a better image to consumers and investors. Our 16 questions are critical, and closely targeted and look at current policies, concrete future goals and verified results.

How to avoid false information
An important aspect entails the verification of this information. Fortunately, on a global scale, many organizations strive for better working conditions. Several large initiatives are focused on implementing a code of conduct and controlling the adherence to this code of conduct. It would be impossible for Rank a Brand to rectify all this information ourselves, since this would include thousands of visits to factories and sewing studios. Therefore, we gratefully make use of the information provided by initiatives that are known to be trustworthy.

One of the accepted initiatives is called the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) which is based on the code of conduct of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Inditex is a member of the ETI. At ETI, independent NGOs have a decisive voice within the initiative and are co-responsible for the integrity and credibility of ETI. As a result, we trust Inditex to adhere to the ETI code of conduct and we trust the verification of this code of conduct. Moreover, the NGOs create a solid base for solving the noted problems. Therefore, Zara has been rewarded this score.

This case also shows us that no verification system or certificate is flawless, or anywhere near perfect. We have blogged on similar issues before.  A hygienic and safe workplace, a maximum working week of 48 hrs with a maximum 12 hrs voluntary paid overtime, living wages and workers’ rights to form and join labour unions are still far from normal at the other side of the production process. Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives, (e.g. Ethical Trading Initiative) are extremely important in order to make a positive change. In addition, a conscious consumer, and initiatives that help the consumer, all play a role in creating a better future.

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