“Voluntary Commitments Alone Won’t Make a Difference!” – A Petition to Foster a Fairer Textile Industry

Text: Katharina Dippold, Journalist

Low wages, precarious employment, poor occupa­tional safety: conditions in the global textile industry are often problematic. Lisa Jaspers, who runs a start-up for fairly produced fashion and design in Berlin, has launched an online petition for legislation on human rights due diligence.

Are voluntary measures based on commitments made by companies sufficient? Berlin entrepreneur Lisa Jaspers thinks the answer is no. She says too little has changed in global value creation since the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh in April 2013. She goes on to say that price is still often the decisive purchasing criterion for the textile market: “Large fashion chains in particular rely on fast fashion, a business model based on rapidly changing collections at the lowest possible retail prices.” But even when purchasing expensive clothes, buyers cannot be sure that the rights of the workers that make them are being respected. Confusing, complex supply chains with many subcontractors and suppliers make it increasingly easy for manufacturers to evade their responsibilities.

In order to take effective action against these change-resistant structures, Jaspers launched a petition for legally binding regulations on human rights due diligence two years ago. “As consumers, we in Germany assume that the state will protect our human rights. In the clothing market, however, we absurdly accept the fact that companies only make commitments to comply with certain labour standards globally and thus protect the human rights of workers in developing countries. This is crazy and needs to change.” Jaspers believes that the possibility of being held legally accountable will encourage companies to proactively improve monitoring in their supply chains and address potential risks for human rights and the environment.

Petitioner and entrepreneur Lisa Jaspers. Photo: Victoria Kämpfe

Delivery of the petition #fairbylaw by Lisa Jaspers (left) to Parliamentary State Secretary Kerstin Griese (right) at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Photo: BMAS

Lisa Jaspers presents a colourful kilim carpet that women in eastern Anatolia knot by hand with wool from the region. Photo: Victoria Kämpfe

Raising awareness through social media

Because nothing changed at the political level after the launch of her petition via the online plat­form in April 2018, she launched a second appeal a year later, on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of Rana Plaza, and mobilised a broad network for this purpose. Jaspers was not only supported by Renate Künast, Member of the Bundestag for the Greens, but also by founders of start-ups, activists and influencers, as well as the Berlin branches of the Fridays for Future and Scien­tists for Future move­ments. For the launch of the campaign, she published a video in which many of the prominent supporters give the demands a common voice. In parallel, the initiative has spread across social media under the hashtag #fairbylaw. Jaspers regards German legislation as just an intermediate step. “Of course, at the end of the day we need a European solution. But a European solution is more likely to be accepted the more countries adopt national legislation.”

Jaspers primarily used digital means such as social media, but also podcasts and interviews with bloggers and online magazines to raise awareness of her grassroots initiatives without a media budget. “I think many people around me only became aware that the problem of fast fashion can also be tackled politically through the online campaign,” said the 36-year-old.

Over 154,000 people have already signed the petition. On 27 November 2019, she and a group of her fellow campaigners presented the petition to Kerstin Griese, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

Fair trade products for a younger, design-oriented target group

With her own company, Jaspers has already pro­ven that it is possible to successfully change how people think and work: seven years ago, just a few months after Rana Plaza, she founded Folkdays, a label for fairly produced fashion and design. The idea for this came to her on journeys which took her to remote regions of the world in her then-function as a management consultant for development cooperation, but also in a private capacity: “The poverty I saw there shocked me.” At the same time, she discovered a wealth of beautiful and sophisticated craftwork. Jaspers, who studied development economics, was motivated: why not bring this expertise to Europe? “In the end, I have always been concerned with the question: How can we get the money we spend here to very poor areas in an intelligent way?”

Her target group is a younger clientele that pays particular attention to aesthetics and quality when shopping. “The label was also born out of the real­isation that until now, there were few fair-­trade products that I found beautiful.” However, it is not only rising demand that makes Jaspers believe that her business model is sustainable. Rather, it is some­thing else that is most important to her: a comprehensive paradigm shift in the economy and society. This brings us full circle: “My business model allows people around the world to live decent lives. And with the petition I am fighting for that to become the aim of entrepreneurialism in general.”

Carpet weaver working in eastern Anatolia. Photo: Lisa Jaspers

Trade unions welcome the fact that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has put the issue of sustainable supply chains on the agenda for Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. A legal framework is necessary to ensure respect for universal and inalienable human rights, as well as labour, social and envi­ronmental standards in global value chains. The 82 organisations from all areas of civil society that are part of the ‚Initiative Lieferketten­gesetz‘ (Initiative for a German Human Rights Due Diligence Act) are calling on the Federal Government to implement this proposal for legislation, which is long overdue. Trade unions, environmental, human rights and development organisations and the repre­senta­tives of fair trade and church organisations are joining forces in an initiative in Europe as well. By providing clear legal ­requirements for companies, Germany and France could be the driving force behind a ­European solution. This would be an extremely positive contribution to making globalisation fair and a decisive step towards ensuring that human rights and the rights of workers are respected in global value chains.

is President of the German Trade Union Confeder­ation (DGB), the country’s largest umbrella organisation of individual trade unions, Reiner Hoffmann has a degree in economics. After working for the Economic and Social Committee of the European Community and the Hans Böckler Foundation, he became Director of the European Trade Union Institute in 1994. Hoffmann was subsequently elected to the position of Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. He became president of the DGB in 2014. (Photo: DGB / Detlef Eden)

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