Exploitation of workers in the UK textile and garment sector has been reported many times in recent years. In 2015, the University of Leicester highlighted that the majority of workers in Leicester’s garment sector earned around £3 per hour. The Financial Times report ‘Dark Factories’ in 2017 confirmed similar findings. And in the summer of 2020, reports emerged from Labour Behind the Label and various media outlets emphasising that these exploitative practices remained normal practice, and that workers were at even greater risk as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fast Forward was developed together with fashion retailers in 2014 to address concerns of exploitative practices in UK fashion manufacturing going undetected by existing social compliance audits.
The objective of the programme since inception has always been to build sustainable supply chains. The focus of this initially was through the forensic auditing methodology which enabled the identification of exploitative practices that had previously gone undetected, and supplier training to build the capacity of committed suppliers to continuously improve in ethical labour standards management.
However, efforts to improve labour practices in UK garment fashion factories through audits, supplier training, de-listing exploitative suppliers and intelligence sharing with authorities were not sufficient to change the systemic issues. Unethical manufacturers were able to sell their products to other brands and there were little if any repercussions for poor practice. And some improving suppliers have raised concerns that their efforts have not been rewarded with growing market demand and they continue to need to compete with suppliers charging potentially unsustainably low prices.
We have seen growing momentum in the media and amongst civil society groups on the importance of buying companies ensuring that their purchasing practices do not undermine suppliers’ ability to meet the legal and ethical standards that their sourcing code of conducts require. For example, Transform Trade is calling on the UK Government to introduce a Garment Trade Adjudicator – or Fashion Watchdog – as proposed in the Fashion and Supply Chain (Code and Adjudicator) Bill – which has so far garnered the support of 41 MPs and over 16,000 signatories (as at 02.02.23). More broadly, there is growing momentum towards mandatory human rights due diligence legislation as introduced already in some European countries, progressing in the European Union through the proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, and called for by 47 businesses and investors for the UK.
Fast Forward recognises the important role we can play as a voluntary initiative in aiding businesses to prepare for upcoming legislation and to support both suppliers and buying companies to play their respective roles in building fair and sustainable supply chains. We have therefore undertaken a number of developments in the last two years to support this, and have further actions planned, as we seek to transition from an audit and improvement programme, to a truly collaborative sustainable supply chain programme.
- We launched the Supplier Engagement Programme, available to any supply chain business in the UK to access a range of benefits to build their capacity to implement ethical labour standards and to strengthen supplier voice and feedback in the programme.
- We introduced a dedicated Fast Forward member of staff for Supplier Engagement Programme Suppliers
We developed and launched the foundation level of a new Brand Ethical Maturity Framework (EMF) to support Brand Members to demonstrate their engagement with the Fast Forward Programme and their continuous efforts and progress in improving labour conditions in their UK supply chains. The methodology enables Brands to evidence their progress during an annual assessment in the following areas:
- Brand Engagement with the Fast Forward Programme
- Human Rights Due Diligence and Transparency
- Purchasing Practices
We ran four webinars for suppliers on topics including wages and labour costing and being an employer of choice.
We introduced a Supplier Feedback Mechanism for suppliers to report any feedback relating to Fast Forward, Member Brands, Audit Bodies or Auditors engaged in the programme.
We launched an online list of all Suppliers engaged in the programme for Brands to view, providing greater visibility of supplier improvements.
In 2023, we have already launched or are planning further developments including:
- New Brand to Brand support sessions enabling Brands that are further in their ethical maturity to provide peer-to-peer support to other brands as they develop their ethical sourcing and human rights due diligence programmes
- We will launch the full level of the Ethical Maturity Framework, with additional measures relating to purchasing practices and supporting training for buying teams
- We are expanding the Fast Forward Audit Methodology in 2023 to cover a review of sustainable product costing.
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