Interview with Jürgen Janssen, Head at the Office of the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles
Jennifer Federico from HEJSupport met Jürgen Janssen, Head at the Office of the Textiles Partnership to discuss ideas about how to achieve a world with sustainable textiles.
What does “sustainable textiles” mean to you?
A lot of things. The most important thing is that there is no final definition about what sustainable textiles comprise. There is a mixture of various features that contribute to a more-or-less sustainable product or textile. The topics and the themes that are important comprise the social and human rights aspects of production, and certainly the environmental footprint of the product, including the lifecycle aspects of the product. I’m not talking about a sustainable product as such, but a more-or-less sustainable and circular way of production, consumption, and disposal.
It really comprises every aspect of it.
Yes, and from a consumer perspective, I think that the biggest challenge we are facing is that the topics I just mentioned- most of them are intangible. When I see a T-shirt in the shop or order clothes online, I can’t see or feel whether it was made by children, what dangerous chemicals may have been used or are still in the garment, or what the water footprint is. If I have a cotton product, I don’t know, see, feel, or taste if this product is from sustainable cotton or not.
And that might have something to do with labelling, which would have to be done by an independent party and has its own challenges.
You are head of the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (PST). What is the goal of the Partnership?
The German Textiles Partnership strives for significant improvements in human rights, social, environmental and economic conditions in textile supply networks – not just upstream, but also downstream, as we’ve put an additional focus on the circular economy aspects of textiles and garment production and consumption.
How long has the Partnership been in existence now?
It started at the end of 2014.
What do you think that the Partnership can achieve for workers in production countries?
Since 2017, our work in the PST is strongly focused on the due diligence approach that has been stipulated by the OECD and was derived from the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. We are a multi-stakeholder initiative with around 130 members from business, civil society, and government. We expect member companies to follow a risk-based due diligence approach that creates awareness and also the scope for their business partners in producing countries to act more responsibly and sustainably. The topics we are working on comprise all the sector risks; this means risks that are prevalent in the textile and garment sector such as low wages, gender-based violence, forced labor, the use of chemicals, wastewater management and climate impact. In addition to the individual due diligence implementation, PST members also work together in Partnership Initiatives in producing countries.
So, the Partnership can provide the support and guidelines, but you cannot force any company to do anything specific regarding employee safety or human rights and safety, etc.
We don’t have a stand-alone complaints mechanism. But if we receive a complaint concerning our member companies or, more precisely, their business partners in the value chain, we contact the indicated companies and ask them, together with other stakeholders, to address the case. But in general, and as a multi-stakeholder initiative with voluntary membership, we cannot force members to behave in a certain way. And I believe we don’t have to, as our members choose to work towards our sustainability and due diligence targets. Those companies and organizations that don’t want to follow our approach won´t join the Textiles Partnership anyway.
And the same could be said in terms of environmental regulations?
Yes, for example, there we do have a collaboration with ZDHC. A few years ago, we decided that we will work with the requirements of the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (ZDHC MRSL) and ask our members to implement these in their supply chains.
Does the Partnership have the same requirements for worker safety abroad and in Germany? This relates to what we were just discussing – can the Partnership only provide suggestions for companies abroad but cannot actually implement them?
First of all, the Partnership itself does not implement projects or measures, its members do. The Partnership can, however, facilitate, organize, and support implementation, and this is much more than just a suggestion. If a topic is in the scope of the Partnership and addresses one or more of the OECD sector risks, and if there is concrete interest in our membership to, for example, launch a Partnership Initiative in certain countries, the Secretariat then provides the frame for implementation.
We don’t have such a joint project on worker safety yet, but if we would get enough “oomph” in that direction, we can facilitate one. I´d like to give you an example: As several member companies want more organic cotton to be available on the market, the Partnership Secretariat initiated a project that is now starting in India. In this pilot project, we work with the Organic Cotton Accelerator, Fairtrade and quite a few companies to support especially small-scale farmers to switch from conventional to organic cotton.
How can you ensure that the requirements for worker safety are being adhered to?
We cannot ensure it 100%. But following the risk-based due diligence approach, we require our members to conduct an individual risk analysis that covers the relevant sector risks. Worker safety is one of these because there is a high incidence and a high risk if occupational health and safety is not being adhered to. Once companies have analyzed their risks, we require them to derive convincing measures to address these risks. For example, if you are sourcing from Bangladesh, we would expect a company to be part of the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, formerly known as Account on Fire and Building Safety. If the company sources from another country, it is asked to demonstrate that it follows through with basic workplace safety measures as stipulated, for example, by the ILO. And we expect that companies in the PST have a complaints mechanism in place that will address possible infringements or accidents that happen.
Would there be any kind of situation where a company may have its membership revoked if it turns out that there seem to be a lot of infringements on what they have committed to?
It would be a difficult process, but yes, in principle, this is possible by a decision of the Steering Committee. By joining the PST, members commit to participate in the Review Process, a framework and corresponding reporting format for the implementation of corporate due diligence obligations. If a company is unable to meet its reporting obligations or is not willing to be transparent in their way of coping with the due diligence requirements, it will have to leave the Partnership.
Hopefully, it would not come to that. If they want to be part of the Partnership….
We are now in the final phase of the Review Process and in the last couple of months we had to ask a few companies to leave. That happens, unfortunately. Sometimes companies just don’t want to or cannot disclose certain information, sometimes companies are in a difficult economic situation and sometimes members just do not follow through with membership requirements.
Does the Partnership have any initiatives to raise worker awareness about toxic chemicals they are dealing with in the production process or supply chain?
Currently, the Partnership does not have a focus on specifically raising awareness in production facilities with regard to the handling of chemicals or other hazardous substances. However, this can be part of a broader approach focusing on improving chemicals management. For instance, last year we concluded a Partnership Initiative on chemicals management, including good housekeeping and awareness trainings, that was implemented in cooperation with ZDHC. The trainings are now continued as online trainings targeting personnel responsible for chemicals handling and utilizing the online-learning platform atingi.
In the time that you have been with the Partnership, do you have any implementation activities or initiatives or standards that you are particularly proud of?
We try not to develop our own standards, because there are already many good and recognized initiatives and standards. Instead we try to identify those standards and initiatives that provide, in our and in our Steering Committee’s opinion, the best way forward. We put our foot down and say, “Let’s support this and increase the leverage.” This is what we’ve done in adopting the ZDHC standards in chemicals management and in wastewater. We do the same with regard to climate action, where we adopt the goals and benchmarks of the UN Fashion Charter for Climate Action (UNFCCC), of which we’ve been a Supporting Organization since 2018. So, not to reinvent the wheel, but take what is already there – and there are a lot of promising approaches out there.
That makes sense, there’s no need to duplicate efforts when there’s already so much out there and so many different things to tackle. On to NGOs – Is it helpful for the Textiles Partnership to partner with NGOs?
The Partnership has been a multi-stakeholder initiative from the very beginning. The challenges that we are facing in this industry are so complex that it really needs a broader approach, including civil society and all the relevant stakeholders. For many years now, NGOs have been active in the textile and garment sector. They are well connected with local stakeholders in producing countries and have built the competencies and capacities to drive change. That´s why the civil society organizations are an integral part of the PST and our work. They often act as watch dogs, they provide insights that companies often don’t have, they help us to be trusted more and gain credibility, as compared to being a business only club…..so I think it’s really an advantage to have the NGOs, unions and other civil society organizations in the Partnership. Being a multi-stakeholder initiative is one of our key reasons of being and there’s no need to have another industry-only initiative. Again: To drive the change, it is important to have all stakeholders involved.
How do companies within the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles address the growing problem of textile waste?
We are just now preparing a survey with our members, looking back at the 1,5 years of COVID-19 where the production, sales planning and forecasting has been very difficult, leading to shortages but also to excess product at the wrong time at the wrong place. For sure, we have a problem with waste in the industry, but we also see that companies are extremely aware of the problem, especially retailers – they really do not want to let their goods go to waste because this is against the core of their business model. They want to sell products to people. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that we see dramatic improvements in forecasting and production planning, even in times where logistics can be a nightmare. During the pandemic, we’ve seen digitalization leapfrogging ahead. This leads also to less waste and less unsold products in the supply chain.
Thirdly, it is a PR disaster for a company to dispose waste in that way, throwing away or incinerating unsold products. Protecting one’s reputation is a very strong incentive not to do that.
Fourthly, we see an extremely professional management of product returns at retailers, for example at our member Otto Group. Their prime goal is to market the returned products through their normal channels, ideally without extra discounts. Only destroyed or contaminated products have to be disposed of, and the share of those is often well below 1%.
So some groups are taking on extended producer responsibility?
Yes, you could say that.
It would be great if more companies would do that! So, we talked in the beginning about your definition of sustainable textiles- do you have any recommendations for how we can achieve a world with sustainable textiles?
For consumers, I would certainly recommend buying less and of higher quality. This sounds like a no-brainer, but I think that often people are still triggered by price and designs, etc., but aren’t necessarily looking into the durability and sustainability of what they are buying. There is still not enough awareness of the challenges and problems caused by high consumption. On the other hand, recognizing more sustainable products is often still a challenge, as mentioned at the beginning of the interview. So trustworthy labelling, certification and transparency remain important tasks for standard organizations, companies, stakeholders, and governments.
Secondly, I think it’s also important for companies to actively engage and go on this journey towards sustainability and responsible business conduct. My conviction is that sustainability and responsibility of companies for what they are doing is already and will increasingly be part of the successful positioning in the market.
Thirdly, sustainable textiles need a favorable market and regulatory environment. This is the task for governments and international organizations that shape the framework conditions for the industry and provide support for change.
And last and certainly not least, the efforts of businesses, governments, civil society, trade unions and industry organizations should be aligned for increased impact. Here, multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Textiles Partnership can play an important role as they provide platforms for dialogue, learning, transparency, exchange of ideas, positions and requirements and for joint planning and executing of activities and initiatives towards a more sustainable and responsible textile and garment industry.