Playing Fair
Mark Held
As children in preschool, we learn how to share. Yet as we grow older and get involved in more vital ventures, like our careers and business, we sometimes forget that cooperation is still important. As Independent Chair of the Board for the Fair Wear Foundation, Mark Held honestly believes “that all business relationships should be equitable and long-term, based on shared values and shared responsibility.” Brands are accountable for their actions. Stakeholders should hold feet to the fire. As co-founder and former President of the European Outdoor Group, Held is also involved with the organization’s Race to Zero. In December 2023, members of the EOG voted to make committing to the initiative by the end of 2024 a mandatory requirement of association membership. The climate action effort has been “interesting, inspiring and at times, frustrating,” he said. But alas, it’s another opportunity for industry to work together toward a common goal. Prior to his expert talk at Performance Days Munich on “Not Accepting the Status Quo,” we caught up with Held.

How can our industry better cooperate - what are some things we can do to enhance sharing?

Held: “The starting point is the understanding that pre-competitive cooperation is fundamental to progress. This is no easy task when you consider that in every other area, we are talking about competitors. Trusting each other and believing that we (all stakeholders) want the industry to thrive, and that the sector can broadly sign up to a set of values where (companies) respect the rights of people involved in its value chain.”

What is the mission and purpose of Fair Wear?

“At Fair Wear, we strive for a global garment supply chain that is a source of safe, dignified and decently paid employment. We believe that workers’ rights are primarily realized through freedom of association and social dialogue. Our vision is that brands take responsibility for their actions within the supply chain and that stakeholders are empowered to hold them to account.”

What are you working on with Fair Wear at the moment?

“As the Independent Chair of the Board, I am focused on balancing the input of the various stakeholders to ensure we maximize its value. Weaving this into the strategy and operations is the secret. Fair Wear is working on industry alignment because we feel that any one actor (business, trade union, suppliers - basically any one/singular party) cannot change the industry on its own. All of us have to make a concerted push in the same direction to realize the change. By all, we mean- legislatures, companies, retailers, suppliers, industry associations and workers.”

What are some of your biggest concerns for textiles and what should our goals as an industry be?

“We have an extremely fragmented industry that leads to diffused responsibility of brands for anything going wrong. It also means both factories and labor (because it is cheap) are fungible. Producers have also been made responsible for improving working conditions without being given the tools and means to do so, such as brands setting higher prices to allow for better wages, allocating longer lead times to reduce overtime and keeping orders reliable to enable stable employment. Other concerns include:

• Fierce price competition with a focus on high volume/low prices on low-end products using unskilled labor, leaving most labor rights violations routinely ignored.

• The inherent power imbalance between brands and suppliers (brands dictate the terms of engagement, contracts are in favor of brands). Then also, between suppliers and workers (absence of unions).

• Prices are set top/down. Companies first fix the selling price (retail price) of products based on the market they want to capture, then downward calculation is done to arrive at cost of production.”

What else are you focusing on at the moment - or plan to be focusing on this year?

“We’ve developed an excellent Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) facilitation tool, with which we guide our member brands to cease harm and prevent and mitigate risks, leading to responsible business conduct with improved labor conditions in the workplace. With this, we facilitate them with their country-risk scoping and help them to respect internationally supported human rights. This enables them to lead the way as industry frontrunners. We empower manufacturers and business associations to be active participants of HRDD implementation, ensuring our efforts help shift the needle of power towards production country stakeholders.

Our work on the Common Framework for Responsible Purchasing Practices (CFRPP) is heralded as the reference point for the garment industry. Most human rights violations are caused by irresponsible purchasing practices and can be resolved by improving them. Our Labor Minute Costing (LMC) methodology enables manufacturers and buyers to incorporate human rights costs for each product style, strengthening their bargaining power and ability to raise wages. We’re aligning with the wider industry to ensure that workers can have their grievances redressed through the CARe platform (an informal hub to exchange learnings and best practices). With our partners, we’re also paving the way for truly meaningful stakeholder engagement with rightsholders and key industrial stakeholders.

   Effective mechanisms for social dialogue between worker representatives and factory management, as well as responsible sourcing dialogue between manufacturers and brands, are fundamental for ‘shared responsibility’ to be realized.”

What do you like most about being in the apparel/textile world? What makes it special?

“Everyone wears and needs clothes, so the industry touches every human being around the world. For me, the garment sector is the only one which is thus far talking about shared responsibility and corporate accountability in supply chains. It’s also exciting to think that we have the power to influence other actors with similar supply chain models (which are labor intensive and where the supply chain is spread globally) such as the toy industry, electronics and the agriculture sector (tea, coffee, rubber).”