With a workforce, operations and supply chain dominated by women, the apparel industry plays a critical role in driving gender equality and women’s empowerment. Not only can it offer women the opportunity to generate economic resources by providing salaries but also by accelerating enablers to their empowerment, such as trainings, promotion opportunities and family-friendly benefits that help support the unpaid care burden. However, the 36 apparel companies assessed largely focus on avoiding gender-related impacts that expose their employees and supply chain workers to risks, often doing the minimum necessary to comply with legislation, rather than proactively driving transformative change in the industry.
Companies focus on avoiding risks, not driving change
Companies provide the most information in relation to violence and harassment, covering 38% of what stakeholders expect to see. Conversely, next to marketplace (8%), companies reveal the least amount of information (22%) around compensation and benefits. Under the health and well-being dimension, 20 companies (56%) disclose how they ensure suppliers provide their workers with a safe and healthy work environment. This highlights that the companies assessed focus on avoiding gender-related risks rather than driving positive impact and going beyond what is legally required to offer women what they need and deserve to be truly empowered.
In terms of violence and harassment prevention, 27 companies assessed (75%) condemn violence and harassment in the workplace and require suppliers to do the same. However, only three of those publish information showing they offer their employees sexual harassment training (Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail and Ralph Lauren) or domestic violence training (Kering) beyond obligatory code of conduct training to further prevent violence and harassment in the workplace. No company publishes information to indicate that it monitors violence and harassment concerns (particularly of women employees) and their effective remediation, recognising that a safe working environment reduces absenteeism and increases productivity and staff retention.
Similarly, 19 of the companies assessed (53%) require suppliers to establish a non-discrimination policy that explicitly protects both married and pregnant women workers, though only Nike requires its suppliers to train hiring managers on the implementation and enforcement of this policy. Target is the only company to provide its suppliers with social compliance and responsible recruitment trainings.
Twenty-six companies (72%) report information about their grievance mechanism through which employees and supply chain workers can report concerns. A majority of these mechanisms (24 companies, 67%) take into account the specific needs of women employees, for instance by guaranteeing confidentiality, allowing concerns to be anonymously reported to someone other than the direct supervisor via a telephone line, and ensuring non-retaliation and protection of the aggrieved party. However, only eight companies (22%) make their grievance mechanism information available in multiple languages based on the geographic areas covered as well as ensure that supply chain workers are aware of the mechanism to report their grievances.
Another area where companies focus on avoiding gender-related impacts is the health and safety of women workers in the supply chain. A majority (20 companies, 56%) considers workers’ health, safety and hygiene needs, for instance by requiring their suppliers to provide access to toilets separated by gender, drinking water, adequately lit factory facilities or appropriate personal protective equipment. However, only three companies (Ascena Retail Group, Nike and VF Corporation) require their suppliers to have an on-site health clinic with a credentialed health provider.
Legal compliance is not enough
When it comes to areas where companies can drive transformative change on gender equality and women’s empowerment, the apparel industry is focused on complying with legislative requirements. For instance, Inditex and Lojas Renner are the only two companies that publish their overall gender pay gap, with Inditex also publishing pay information by pay bands. However, 13 of the companies publish the relevant information for their operations in the United Kingdom, in accordance with national legislation that requires companies with over 350 employees to publish pay data and bonus differences by gender. This highlights the importance of legislative and disclosure requirements for companies and for effecting change. No company publishes gender pay data for its global workforce, either in terms of the overall pay gap, by pay band, occupational function or in terms of financial benefits (e.g. insurance benefits, bonuses, retirement contributions). Moreover, no company discloses a strategy or active steps it is taking to address any global pay gaps identified.
In the supply chain, 28 of the companies assessed (78%) require their suppliers to pay workers the legal minimum wage. Sixteen of these mention the prevailing local industry wage, stating the higher wage should be paid. Fifteen of these recognise workers’ right to fair compensation for their work and encourage suppliers to pay a living wage, though it is not a requirement. Only two companies (Inditex and Kering) require suppliers to pay workers a salary that goes beyond covering their basic needs to include a discretionary income or the needs of their family.
Governments can help raise the bar on corporate gender efforts by requiring companies to report more on their gender impacts. However, companies cannot wait for – and should not rely on – regulation to determine the apparel industry’s transformation. They need to take the initiative to address issues that are key to gender equality and women’s empowerment and go beyond mere compliance.