Sustainable Fashion

Everything you want to know about the sustainability of the textile and fashion industry

Interview with Johannes Norpoth, Coordinator of the civil society group in the German Partnership on Sustainable Textiles

Jennifer Federico from HEJSupport had the opportunity to talk with Johannes Norpoth, NGO Coordinator of the civil society group in the German Partnership on Sustainable Textiles to discuss approaches towards sustainability in the textile sector.

What does “sustainable textiles” mean to you?

Sustainable textiles means to me that, over the long production process, along all steps, workers have been paid a living wage, and all internationally-recognized worker rights have been accepted. And additionally, that production processes have been used that do not harm the environment or the health of human beings and do not overuse available resources.

What is the role of civil society in the textile alliance?

We are one of the actor groups within the Alliance (which we also call the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (PST)). The Partnership is a multi-stakeholder initiative, and it is in some ways unique because each group has equal say in the Partnership. So civil society groups in this initiative are not merely an advisory group, but actually, decisions have to be made with the consent of civil society members. So, it’s a consensus-based principle and each stakeholder group has to consent to the activities and decisions that are taken. That gives us quite some influence on the Partnership and its members, but at the same time, I think it’s also a difficult role for us because consensus-building in such multi-stakeholder initiatives is slow and difficult and it involves compromises and sometimes deviates from positions that we as civil society might take outside of the PST. It’s on the one hand an influential position but on the other hand, one that is difficult for our publicity work as NGOs.

Difficult because sometimes the concessions are not what the NGOs would really want but are necessary to build consensus?

Yes, exactly.

So this actually points to my next question- what are the difficulties for NGOs working in a multi-stakeholder initiative? I could take, from what you just told me, that one of the main difficulties would be accepting some decisions that maybe are not exactly what the NGOS would want, in the interest of moving the process forward.

Yes, I think the learning for us is that progress is made in tiny steps, and it is sometimes difficult to justify those tiny steps as sufficient progress outside the Partnership. Of course, there are some groups that are more engaged in the Partnership than others, so, for example, those that are members but may be taking more of the role of observers are sometimes frustrated with the negotiation results achieved by those more directly involved in the negotiations. I think the same applies to NGOs that are not members of the Partnership and are observing how things move forward from the outside. It’s sometimes difficult to explain to them why we agreed to a certain decision and that we still see it as a step forward, although we totally agree that it is a really tiny step for the moment and bigger steps still need to be taken. 

I suppose you have to decide sometimes whether a tiny step is better than no step at all.

Yes, we actually always weigh whether the process as such is worth all the effort.

One would hope that the industry members are participating in good faith- do you find that to be the case or are some of the industry members just trying to make themselves look good?

I think it’s even more complicated- it’s not only about trying to look good, it’s also strategic on a political level, probably because the Partnership is backed by the German government. ….since the Partnership started, it has always been an instrument that has been discussed against the backdrop of potential legislative acts that could be taken by the German government in the field of business and human rights. So for many businesses, and especially the business associations that are also part of the Partnership, the Partnership was always the attempt to show that legislative steps will not be necessary, while at the same time trying to do as little as possible. And so you have this kind of motivation definitely prevalent among the business associations in the Partnership and some of the business members. However, I must say that there are exceptions among businesses that are part of the Partnership that are definitely trying to make use of the Partnership, are engaging in good faith in those discussions, and are also partners in moving things forward in the PST. But it’s a very mixed group on the business side.

What would you personally be very happy about the Partnership achieving? Do you have any specific personal achievements that you would love to see?

It depends a little bit on the timeframe. I think we have made quite some progress in setting up a so-called review process in which each company member is reviewed against what it does in terms of human rights and environmental due diligence, and I would love to see that process being taken further, becoming more tangible in certain aspects, because I think it shows quite nicely that there’s a difference between companies in how they approach human rights and environmental due diligence and what they actually do to improve their supply chain. But as the reporting format stands at the moment, this is not made very transparent to the outside world, so you really need to be an expert in reading those reports that will come out shortly to see those differences. A transparent categorization of frontrunner enterprises and those laggards would be a good contribution that the Partnership could make.

Another thing is supply chain transparency. Currently, the PST is still a multi-stakeholder initiative for cooperation that lacks the basic information on where exactly cooperation is possible and needed more – it is still a cooperation in the dark – we still don’t have a commitment from business members to support supply chain transparency within the Partnership; sharing a list of their suppliers is still a very contentious issue. Some do that voluntarily, but it’s not a membership requirement. Making that a membership requirement would make cooperation in the PST so much easier and effective.

What do you think are the most burning issues that need to be achieved at the global (regionally (EU), and in Germany)?

I think in Germany it’s especially sorting out the regulatory environment for business and human rights. We have a law on supply chain due diligence adopted, but it only covers larger companies. There are also some gaps about what it covers down the supply chain- it mostly addresses the direct supplier and there’s still no civil liability included. There are also discussions on more extensive due diligence legislation at the EU level. This regulatory environment question is the most decisive thing at the moment on the EU and German levels because it gives the important structure, baseline and direction for companies and how they should act, and allows civil society to take action on that and support implementation of such legislative acts through projects on the basis of partnerships such as the PST. In my impression, as long as there’s this lack of clarity in the legal environment, it’s a very complicated political discussion for every step that you take.

With regard to production countries and the sphere of social and human rights, we really need to urgently address wage issues, and that is strongly connected to a stronger protection of freedom of association. I think that needs to be more in the focus of measures taken by actors such as the Partnership and other initiatives out there in the textile industry such as ACT (Association for Contract Textiles) or the Fair Wear Foundation. All actors engaged in the sector should cooperate to ensure we really see tangible results on this.

In the environmental sphere, you have this urgent shift to more circular models. A circular economy is what we should strive for, but at the same time, my impression is that we need more clarification about what that actually means. I think if you ask businesses they think, “ok, so if we switch to recycling that’s a circular economy,” but a lot of recycling is not really closing the loop, and is not, as such, based on environmentally friendly processes, so there’s still a lot of clarification necessary. Also, the other big thing is the risk of hazardous chemicals involved in this process.  

How can sustainable textiles be achieved?

Things to achieve include a lot of knowledge-building in industry and across the sector along all tiers of production, and willingness to cooperate on this goal. Clear political guidance via binding rules, especially on human rights and environmental due diligence, is also needed, because that’s how companies give the necessary message for improvements down their supply chain.