22.01.2021 202030

Interview with ANOSHA WAHIDI, Grüner Knopf Interview with ANOSHA WAHIDI, Grüner Knopf

"Companies need clear, binding provisions governing sustainability and transparency in their business."

Sustainability has to become an imperative!

Anosha Wahidi is a fully qualified lawyer and has been working at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) since 2008. Since returning from a five-year foreign assignment in 2013, she has been committed to promoting cooperation within the industry for more sustainability in global supply chains. She has been involved in the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles since its founding in 2014 and played a key role in developing and introducing the Green Button, a government-run certification label for sustainable textiles. For the past three years, she has also been working on a binding law aiming to anchor companies’ so-called duty of care at national and European level. Anosha’s goal: transparency in all of the world’s supply chains.

Interview: Uta Gruenberger

What was the goal behind establishing the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles? And how did the textile industry react? 

The event that triggered it was the Rana Plaza catastrophe that killed more than 1,000 people, mainly women. We no longer wanted to accept the working conditions that led to that incident. But if we want the conditions on site and the supply chains to improve permanently, we need the concerted effort of all players. That was our reasoning behind setting up the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles as a platform for learning, exchange and implementation, where businesses, associations, trade unions, civil society and policymakers meet, sit down together and set themselves very concrete goals – from chemicals management to improving sewists’ complaints procedures and living wages.

There was a lot of resistance when we founded it – especially from the textile industry. At that time the market participation was only around 1%. Now we’re at about 50%. But that’s still not enough.

The Green Button was a step towards sustainability. What does this certification represent?

The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles is all about concrete improvements and supply chain transparency. All companies are welcome to participate on a voluntary basis – both recognised sustainability pioneers and companies who are just kicking off their efforts. The Green Button is geared towards consumers. It aims to make this transparency understandable and to give consumers a simple orientation when they are making a purchase decision. The Green Button is a certification for textiles produced in a socially and ecologically sustainable way. What sets it apart is that we review both the product and whether the company is fulfilling its duty of care. The Green Button is the first hallmark of its kind with a methodical control process.
In the beginning we had 27 companies. One year later that number had already doubled. One foreign company even joined us. The great diversity of the companies is striking: from the small startup with three employees and fashion companies like Hess Natur, to outdoor brands like Vaude and Jack Wolfskin, through to discounters.
This wide range of companies shows that it’s not a matter of size when it comes to fulfilling duty of care. It just has to be a priority, and the executive level needs to be onboard. In the first half-year of 2020 alone, more than 50 million Green Button items were sold – despite Covid-19. That means we’re well on track.

Duty of care actually sounds like a code of honour and bedrock for all business owners. Why is it taking so long to lay it down in law?

Duty of care is new to a lot of companies. It’s not to be confused with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Duty of care means that each company has to do everything in its power to prevent harm to people and the environment in its supply chain. To do that, it needs to be aware of that potential harm first of all, identify the risks and provide a remedy. Duty of care must of course be part of a company’s DNA; it must also be put into practice by its procurement department and not just the PR team.
But there’s a lot happening – thanks in part to the Green Button and the conversation regarding duty of care legislation in Germany. The discussion about mandatory duty of care is also gaining momentum at EU level. I am confident that soon every single company will have to focus its attention on these topics – and that’s a good thing!

Not only the worldwide textile production, but also the defenders of rights in that industry all seem to be women …

I’m extremely grateful that there are many fantastic female company owners and civic activists who are doing whatever it takes to improve the living and working conditions in the producing countries. The textile supply chain is female; many millions of women work in the industry. They are what drives me each and every day. On my many trips to the producing countries, I’ve seen women in stifling factories, working in between the stinking carcasses of animals, or up to their knees in chemicals, to tan leather for a pittance. And after work they go home to take care of their families. We really have no idea how harsh and unbearable their lives are. Not to mention the issue of violence and abuse.

“Usually the decision makers are people who’ve never been there themselves …”

… and yet they are the ones who decide on the standards so desperately needed to improve the workers’ situation. How often have I heard these people complain that we are putting too much strain on companies, or the sentence, “Of course we set great store by human rights, but …”. But there is really nothing to argue about. Human rights are the foundation of our society. We can’t accept working conditions in the producing countries in the Global South that are quite rightly prohibited in Germany. In truth, there’s no way around a mandatory duty of care law. After all, a representative survey carried out by the German government showed that a voluntary basis is just not enough. Less than 20% of German companies have implemented their duty of care to date!

What is your vision? What’s next for sustainability? 

Companies need clear, binding provisions governing sustainability and transparency in their business – in Germany and Europe, but as far as possible, worldwide. They need to know what is expected of them. They also need a level playing field. Upholding human rights can no longer be a competitive disadvantage.

But it’s also up to the consumers to develop an awareness of sustainability. Always blaming others won’t get us anywhere. How about we just all start with our own lives?!