Improving Factory Working Conditions

Improving Factory Working Conditions A commitment to safety, fairness, dignity and respect

Every piece of clothing that we sell is created by someone’s hands – many of our products are touched by multiple people, most likely women, who sew a button on a pair of jeans or reinforce the seam of a shirt. In fact, more than one million people work in the factories where our products are made. Every day we pore over creative ideas for our clothes, spending time on every detail. But without the people who make them, this vision would never come to life.

We continue to strive to ensure that - as they fill such an important role for our company - the people who make our clothes work in safe, fair conditions and that they are treated with dignity and respect.

We’re designing new approaches to partnering with factories, soliciting the feedback of the people who make our clothes, and enhancing how much they feel engaged and valued.

For many, working in the garment industry provides a critical opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families. Yet local infrastructure and rule of law can be lacking, and the industry still faces challenges in protecting worker safety and human rights. As one of the world’s largest apparel retailers, we recognize that we have a responsibility to address these issues, and we believe that our business can only thrive when the people who make our clothes have the chance to do the same. We also believe that like us, our customers care about the conditions under which their clothes are made and the lives of the people who make them.

This sense of connection unlocks new possibilities for change. When factory employees are treated fairly and work in safe conditions, they can perform at their best, helping us create better products and better serve our customers. When customers, in turn, share their expectations and feedback with us, they help to make us a stronger company, one that can play a part in leading the industry toward further improvements.

We have significantly expanded our efforts since we wrote our first vendor guidelines in 1992 – and in the past few years, we have done a thorough reassessment of our approach, laying the groundwork for further progress. We have introduced a range of improvements as well as innovative approaches to better understand the experience of the people who make our clothes and make sure that their voices are heard.

At a glance working conditions

“When we improve working conditions and create opportunities for the people who make our clothes, we enhance our ability to deliver great products to our customers. Our sourcing and sustainability teams work together seamlessly to bring benefits to everyone, from our partners to the people whose lives we touch in communities throughout the world.”

- Sonia Syngal, Executive Vice President, Global Supply Chain and Product Operations

Protecting human rights and addressing systemic challenges

All of our efforts are guided by our commitment to honoring and protecting the human rights of the people who make our clothes, as spelled out in our Human Rights Policy. This policy establishes key principles that guide how we run our business, as well as the core issues that we work to address, such as the prohibition of any and all forms of child or forced labor. In addition, we continue to maintain our own team of specialists who live and work in a wide range of countries to ensure that our Code of Vendor Conduct is more than a document, it helps to create real progress through our actions.  

Our team talks extensively with workers at factories where our clothes are made, and we follow up on the issues we find. We focus much of our time on complex issues such as tackling the use of unauthorized subcontracting, fire and safety issues inside factories, freedom of association and excessive overtime.

Because many of these issues touch on systemic challenges, we know that we can’t tackle them on our own and have partnered with governments, NGOs, trade unions and other brands and retailers to come up with innovative solutions. A prime example is the Better Work Program, a multi-stakeholder collaboration led by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to create a joint approach to monitoring factories. We work in close partnership with the ILO, sitting on its advisory board and piloting the Better Work program in new countries, including Bangladesh.

Designing New Approaches

Despite making progress, we know that we must continually raise the bar on our efforts, as the pace of production gets faster, competition intensifies and demand for lower-cost, fast fashion remains strong. In other words, the challenges we face continue to become more complex. 

Over the past few years, we have invested in doing a deep review of our work and designing new approaches. For example, we worked with an outside consultancy to examine our supplier sustainability program and make numerous improvements. We have developed a country-specific approach to assessing risk and creating strategies to improve our work in factories. In Vietnam, for example, we are working alongside the government, ILO, development agencies and other companies to build a responsible apparel industry. 

 

Improving working conditions video
Improving factory working conditions

One of our most innovative programs centers on a partnership with Verité – a leading non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on ensuring that people work under safe, fair, and legal conditions. Together we are expanding on traditional approaches to improving working conditions by measuring and improving how much workers feel valued and engaged at work. Our collaboration centers on eliciting and listening to workers’ own voices: How are they treated?  Do they feel negatively or positively about their jobs? What would they like to see improved? 

By understanding workers’ points of view and addressing issues from their perspective, we see new opportunity to improve their experience of work. In addition, we will be sharing some of our own human resources best practices with our suppliers, so that they can learn from what we have found to be successful at Gap Inc. We aim to help the factories where our products are made become preferred employers in the communities in which they operate, creating business benefits such as higher retention and improved productivity.

We are also supporting another program that focuses on empowering workers through our adoption of ILO Better Work's Workplace Cooperation Program, which aims to provide workers and management with the skills needed to jointly resolve workplace issues and engage in respectful collaboration. In 2015, we provided ILO Better Work with a grant to scale this important program, and will soon use this curriculum as the basis for our updated capability building program. We believe that focusing on improving dialogue and relations will help workers and management prevent future labor disputes, resolve problems more effectively, give greater voice to workers and improve productivity and competitiveness.

 

We have introduced a range of improvements as well as innovative approaches to better understand the experience of the people who make our clothes.

Most of our suppliers are large, multinational businesses. Many actively monitor their labor practices, provide health and safety training to workers and have programs to improve their environmental sustainability.

Beyond such programs, we have also worked to make improvements within Gap Inc. In order to create lasting, wide-scale change to working conditions inside factories, we recognize that our sustainability team can’t act alone, but must be joined by our sourcing team and key players from each of our brands. These teams are finding new ways to collaborate every day, including the setting of shared sustainability goals. They are also taking an integrated approach to measuring the performance of our suppliers. And they are working with fewer and more preferred suppliers with whom we can cultivate long-term, close relationships that enable us to create greater change. 

Business integration has also helped spur progress through our P.A.C.E. program, which has been embraced by our suppliers and brings benefits to multiple stakeholders. Since 2007, the Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. program has provided more than 30,000 women with the opportunity to gain skills and confidence to advance both at work and in life. In September 2015, we committed to greatly expand the program, setting a goal to educate one million women throughout our supply chain and in communities around the world by the end of 2020. 

More than 20 years since we began our journey to improve working conditions, we are still learning – and facing new challenges. For example, we documented more red-rated factories in the 2013-2014 time period than in 2011-2012 (red is our lowest rating and signals that immediate action is required at a factory to address one or more serious issues). This finding spurred us to investigate further and take steps to reverse this trend. For the first time in 2014, our sustainability and sourcing teams came together to set – and achieve – a shared goal to address issues at red-rated factories. We succeeded in resolving 96 percent of critical issues and 81 percent of other open issues at all low-performing factories in this category.

In addition, we are continuing to invest in new programs such as our work with Verité, and we have evolved our rating methodology to more accurately assess factory performance and focus our time on the most critical issues. We have set a goal that all strategic suppliers will have a sustainability rating of green or yellow by the end of 2020. These suppliers accounted for 84 percent of our sourcing costs for branded apparel in 2015. 

While the world has changed in many ways since we started this important work, what hasn’t changed is the value of the very human effort that goes into making our clothes. The people who bring our designs to life play a critical role in enabling us to fulfill our potential as a company, and we aim to create that same opportunity for them. The challenges we face are complex, and we know that we have more work to do, but we also see even greater possibilities to unlock positive change in the future. 

Improving factory working conditions