Co-ops and the SDGs: No.12, sustainable consumption

‘We see a global market that is shamelessly affected by child labour, exploitation of workers and farmers, hazardous working conditions and human rights abuses’

We speak to Patrick Develtere. a principal advisor of the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), the in-house thinktank of the European Commission. He will be a keynote speaker at the ICA’s Global Conference in Kigali

What are the key priorities on inclusive ethical value chains – and how do co-ops fit in?

If you take almost all the recent trends in society and the economy you will see that co-ops have been forerunners. The co-op movement should make a big scan of its workings and see if the core standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the human rights principles are respected.

Co-ops want to correct what is going wrong, and they want to detect alternatives. This is exactly what is needed when we see a global market, production and consumption that is shamelessly affected by indecent situations like child labour, exploitation of workers and farmers, hazardous working conditions and human rights abuses.

Patrick Develtere

How can retailers help ensure inclusive value chains? 

Co-op retailers should not underestimate the influence of the ethical buying movement. Consumer power is real power. And we are not only talking about individual consumers but also about not-for-profit organisations and governments as big consumers. But, of course, retailers also buy and thus also have power; they can impose conditions on suppliers. 

Some retailers are developing their own accreditation for suppliers. What impact could this have?

There is indeed a proliferation of social audit and certification systems, and the fragmentation and duplication becomes a nuisance. One buyer of garments in Bangladesh might require the lamps to be at 80cm distance from the workers; another might impose a 1m distance. That is why we need coordinated initiatives like the Better Work Programme of the ILO. This is developing global tools for the garment industry. Factories have steadily improved compliance covering compensation, contracts, occupational safety and health and working time. This has significantly improved working conditions productivity and profitability. Several thousands of apparel factories are involved and millions of workers benefit.

What are the big obstacles in terms of ensuring the globalisation of inclusive ethical value chains?

We need a consensus on criteria; the core ILO conventions are a good starting point. I believe there is a universal acceptance that we should not consume items produced by forced labour, that child labour should be excluded and that men and women should be paid equally. But many audit and certification systems overlook two more fundamental conventions – freedom of association and the right to be involved in social dialogue. They water these down by vaguely paying attention to so-called systems of stakeholder participation. 

Also, many social audits still interview workers in the factories. It is not rocket science to say that the information gathered in this way will not be very reliable or valid. We should move towards systems of due diligence, starting from a risk analysis, screening the whole chain, develop action plans with concrete measures and be fully transparent. 

What has been achieved so far?

I think the ground and conditions are created for further progress towards more inclusive ethical value chains. Civil society has played a major role in this, together with the non-governmental organisations and the co-operative movement.

Look at Fairtrade – largely organised as a co-operative movement – or the Clean Clothes Campaign that raised awareness about abuses in the garment industry. A growing number of countries are developing national action plans for human rights due diligence as a way for enterprises to manage adverse human rights impact.

What is your message to the co-operative movement?

Take this development seriously. To be co-operative or not will depend on our adherence to human rights principles. To be co-operative or not will depend on our vanguard role in this global movement because of our DNA. To be co-operative or not will depend on our creative ability to correct what is going wrong and to detect what can be done.