Fair Wear Foundation's Christian Smith sizes up fashion's fair labor problems
Prior to accepting a position with Zalando in early February, Christian Smith was partnerships and stakeholder engagement lead at Fair Wear Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve conditions for workers in garment factories.
Previously, he spent years working to make changes from within the apparel industry, with roles at Tesco, ASOS and TOMS.
Here Smith explains how working with an NGO compares with working for a brand, how COVID triggered a new understanding of the systemic problems within global apparel and what Fair Wear plans to do about it. He also offers some sage advice to anyone passionate about sustainability but not sure where to start.
Shannon Houde: Christian, can you tell us a little bit about where fair labor as an agenda is going? What momentum are you seeing at the Fair Wear Foundation?
Smith: Until COVID, there had been a massive increase in focus on environmental issues. That was because it’s much easier to measure improvements and changes in the environmental sector than it is to dive into the contextual issues that shape the experience of workers in the supply chain.
But COVID made it very clear that the foundations on which the industry is built are made of sand, particularly for the workers who were already working under difficult conditions. It led to an acknowledgement that we need to really address the social issues in a way that leads to systemic change, as opposed to the “let’s do an audit” at the factory and move on.
It’s the people who are doing the purchases, the people who are managing supply chains, people who are at the CEO level, making decisions about where to put the finances. Those are the people that actually make the change.
So a lot of the focus has now transformed into both that systemic change and also what is the role of the brand in creating the conditions that lead to these issues happening in the first place. At Fair Wear, we’re focused on, how do you get brands to acknowledge their responsibility and to create an environment where workers are able to exercise their fundamental rights?
Houde: And what’s the answer? How do you get them to shift their practices?
Smith: It’s about understanding the risk and understanding the context in which you’re sourcing. So if you as a brand know that you’re sourcing from, say, Turkey, you should also be very aware that Turkey is a place where there’s a lot of Syrian migrants. So there are going to be social issues from a migrant perspective. You should also be aware that Turkey, even though it’s a place where you can source amazing cotton, is also water-stressed.
So both from the social and the environment perspective, it is up to you as a brand to understand the decisions you’re making and converse with your internal people to get them on board with any changes. You need to speak to your suppliers, understand what the cost of living is, understand a breakdown of costs and what percentage actually goes towards labor.
It’s not always about money. It’s about improving the dignity of workers and understanding that the behavior of the brands can actually help for that to improve.
Houde: In the last decade, you’ve worked about half the time in leading apparel and retail brands, the likes of ASOS, Tesco, Toms and PVH. Then in the last three to four years more in nonprofits, including three years at Fair Wear. What do you see are the biggest differences between shaping change within a brand versus within a multi–member organization?
Smith: There’s a couple of things. The first thing is really the depth of knowledge. So in my work in both Social & Labor Convergence Project; (SLCP) and Fair Wear, what I’ve seen is that my own understanding of the issues at hand has changed dramatically compared to where it was before. When I worked in the private sector, I was always balancing the commercial side of the business with having to do the right thing.
What I’ve learned from SLCP is the importance of correct data. What shocked me was how little accurate data we have within the industry. That makes measuring impact incredibly difficult to do. And so over the three years or so I understood it was a major issue, and you really get to dive into that.
Moving to Fair Wear … there’s a strong link between Fair Wear and trade unions and civil society organizations, so you’re going into a space that’s very much people-focused. You start to see things through a different lens.
So it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for the ability to deep dive into a particular topic, you might be able to stay in a brand, if the brand has a big enough department that allows you to do individual pieces of work. But more likely, you’re going to have to be more of a jack of all trades. Whereas if you work on the NGO side, you could really dive into particular issues on a much deeper level, and get to the crux of the fundamental things about what’s wrong and how to fix it. But then you might be a little bit more removed from impact in supply chains. So it really depends on what you’re looking for.
Houde: What challenges do you face on a regular basis on the job in terms of getting all the different stakeholders on board and moving in the same direction?
Smith: One of the main challenges is knowledge — or lack thereof. You spend a lot of time speaking to organizations and saying, “OK, here’s a framework that you can use, here’s a way that you can pull people together, here’s people who’ve done it before that you can speak to,” and making sure that people have the information that they need, and a roadmap that they can follow.
Houde: To what extent is specific industry knowledge key to being successful in your role? How does that technical knowledge compare to the importance of, say, those relationship skills?
Smith: I think 50-50 would be too simplistic as it really depends on the subject. I will openly say that I am not technically gifted in terms of how you do a design pack, or the ins and outs of contract negotiations or how products get from one place to another. But I know that these things happen, and I know the processes, although I might not be able to make it happen myself. I think the most important thing is to have a really good overview of how the industry works with some specific knowledge on the issues that touch on the social or environmental pieces. For example, you know production practices are really important, and you know which departments are responsible for production practices. Then you can start to dive into that with people to pick up your knowledge on what the problems might be.
What is really needed is systemic thinking and an understanding of how things are interlinked. It’s really about the ability to make the connections between topics and between organizations, and being able to leverage them at the right time.
Houde: How have you convinced employers that this systemic thinking compensates for the lack of technical knowledge? Or did they already get that?
Smith: I think people are starting to understand that much more now. Back when I started, there was a lot more conversation about technical skills but now it seems to be “I need someone who understands sustainability,” or “I need someone who understands the industry as a whole,” rather than somebody that can create a design pack.
A lot of people have come up to me and said they want to work in sustainability. I think that’s absolutely amazing. But I’d say, what did you want to do before you learned about sustainability? Go do that but with a sustainability hat on. Because the change doesn’t really happen with a sustainability team. We are facilitators. It’s the people who are doing the purchases, the people who are managing supply chains, people who are at the CEO level, making decisions about where to put the finances. Those are the people that actually make the change. And if you have more people who are able to do those jobs and think with a sustainability hat on, then you can actually see a much faster change, be it quality of life for workers or climate change. They already have the power and the knowledge, and now they’ll have that different perspective.
Shannon Houde is an ICF-certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect, where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about their day-to-day responsibilities.