In review: the OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector

By Tessa Boumans

During 16–17 February 2023, the OECD hosted their Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector in Paris. As an AiPact PhD candidate, I got the opportunity to travel down and experience the debate on due diligence firsthand. For this blog post, I will not just reflect on what was said, but also on what wasn’t; because in spite of inspiring lessons from the speakers, the topic of AI and related advanced technologies was notoriously absent. In contrast, one can find an abundance of business-focused webinars, reports and conferences on advanced technologies in the garment industry. Therefore, I can’t help but wonder why the labor rights movement seems to have a blind spot for these same technologies — and in extension whether this is a bad thing.

When Nazma Akter, founder and Executive Director of Awaj Foundation and former (child) garment worker, opened the forum I was immediately engaged. And how can you not be, when phrases such as: “Rana Plaza was not an accident, it was murder” are spoken on stage? I perceived Akter’s main message to be about respect and getting decent valuation for the women who build the industry, or as she said: “we respect business, but business doesn’t respect the workers.”

Throughout the different sessions that followed, I got to taste many of the different flavors that make sustainable transitions in the garment sector ever so difficult. From Global South suppliers who struggle with different standards and competitive business models that drive a race to the bottom, to Global North brands who are facing barriers at the factory level to achieve their due diligence goals. For example, as Arnoud van Vliet from the Dutch brand Zeeman explained, they have had to find intricate administrative loopholes to be able to pay a living wage to the workers that fabricate their clothes[1]. At the same time, great initiatives to solve these practical issues were also brought to my attention, such as the ‘ACT memorandum of understanding on global purchasing practices’, and the multi-stakeholder initiative ‘The Industry We Want’ from FairWear.

Apart from a brief note by Akter that, in the future, many workers could lose their job due to automation, the topic of the societal impact of AI or other advanced technologies was not really mentioned. This means that two opportunities for pressing and meaningful discussions were missed: one on the risks of technologies, such as surveillance and ultra-fast fashion business models, and one on the opportunities to use technologies for the benefit of labor rights and due diligence.

With regards to the latter, it is worth mentioning the following side note. On the one hand, I am hesitant to promote the idea of ‘technofixes’. Technology can sometimes be a wooden leg in plaster, whilst the underlying fundamental issues of labor violations remain unaddressed. A good example is when tech is used to provide more transparency in the value chain. Transparency can be a first step to due diligence, but if labor rights violations remain unaddressed there is simply no real added value. On the other hand, technology can support the quest for a just transition. For example, during one of the breaks I met the founder and CEO of Compare Ethics, a company that uses AI to identify and address sustainability risks in the value chain. Although the labor rights movement still has a lot of room to explore how AI tools can benefit their cause, it is interesting to see practical examples of how AI can directly be used to promote better working conditions. I’m hoping to encounter more and more of these initiatives as I continue my research.

Although the (inappropriately) gold-leaved hors d’oeuvres left a bittersweet taste in my mouth, I feel that overall, the forum shows a unifying desire of stakeholders to strive for a more just garment industry. At the same time, as we move towards a more standardized sector — both in regulation and production processes — we should not forget to prioritize the voices and experiences of the women who stand at the foundation of the industry. Ultimately, it is the workers who deserve to be heard, valued and empowered.

[1] See the statement here, from minute 30 onwards.