As a woman, recent reports of gender-based violence in the Fabletics supply chain, co-founded by Kate Hudson, are horrifying. The allegations are based on 40 interviews and include reports of vulva exposure, sexual assault, and verbal abuse at the hands of factory supervisors.
As a former garment factory manager, I’m frustrated. Without question, factory management should be held accountable. But if we agree that human rights abuses in fashion supply chains are systemic, we must also agree that accountability needs to go beyond individual factors. Instead, our collective point of departure (whether brand or supplier) should always be to ask ourselves how our behavior impacts others, and how we might inadvertently contribute to the problem.
Like so many brands before it, Fabletics takes no such ownership. Instead, they point their finger firmly outward at their Lesotho-based supplier. Meera Bhatia, president of expert services at Fabletics, is quoted as saying: “immediately after receiving the [abuse and harassment] report, Fabletics suspended all operations at Hippo Knitting.” Fabletics effectively claims a moral monopoly: they didn’t know about their supplier’s bad behavior. They are “guilty” only insofar as they failed to effectively police their supplier’s behavior.
As a factory manager, I hated social compliance audits – I wasn’t convinced they made us a more responsible business. The process was a costly, time consuming, song-and-dance that amounted to little more than a tick-box exercise focused on the wrong questions
But given their reliance on social compliance audits, Fabletics should have known what they claimed they didn’t know. As a factory manager, I hated social compliance audits – I wasn’t convinced they made us a more responsible business. The process was a costly, time consuming, song-and-dance that amounted to little more than a tick-box exercise focused on the wrong questions (more on that here). My boss used to remark with exasperation that a building practically had to be on fire in order for social auditors to shut it down.
But the evidence isn’t just anecdotal. A damning investigation by Maria Hengeveld for The Nation breaks down how the audit industry “protects profits, not people.” There’s also increasing alignment within the academic research community that social audits haven’t delivered for workers. Cornell University’s New Conversations Project, based on evidence from over 40,000 factory labor audits over 12 countries and 12 industries, shows that the number of violations found in labor audits “was almost unchanged between 2011 and 2018 across all countries and industries.” If social auditing isn’t driving change on the factory floor in general, how can we expect them to deliver on more complex issues like gender-based violence specifically?
If social auditing isn’t driving change on the factory floor in general, how can we expect them to deliver on more complex issues like gender-based violence specifically?
In other words: Fabletics isn’t just guilty of not knowing, they’re guilty of ignorantly deploying an ineffective approach to supplier conduct. Worse still, they’ve done it in a context where there’s a strong precedent of gender-based violence and harassment, something that often gets swept under the rug – even when it primarily affects relatively privileged women from the global North. As Kate Hudson herself points out: even “high-profile actresses are subjected to a specific and relentless kind of harassment.” She goes on to emphasize the importance of women in leadership and in the boardroom. But instead of taking responsibility for the ineffectiveness of social audits, or participating in a much-needed conversation about why social compliance audits have failed a mostly female workforce, Fabletics responded to the allegations by moving-up “a previously scheduled third-party audit of the factory.”
Fabletics isn’t alone: brand after brand continues to invoke supplier-focused social compliance audits and “independent investigations” as a common response to human rights abuses in their supply chains. For example, in the wake of alleged human rights abuses in Leicester, Boohoo said it “was going to do an independent review into [their] supply chain.” Similarly, a New York Times report detailing allegations of forced labor within Malaysia-based factories producing for Levi’s, Brooks Brothers, Suitsupply, LL Bean, Walmart, and Lacoste noted that the brands had hired the ethical trade consultancy Impactt to do an independent supplier assessment. Companies like Nike are lauded as progressive for tying executive bonuses to their supply chain’s social performance on health and safety, presumably measured through social compliance audits — all while we charge ahead with due diligence legislation that risks enshrining ineffective social auditing practice into law.
Beyond their reliance on ineffective social audits, the second question Fabletics should be asking itself is how their purchasing practices impact worker willingness to come forward with allegations of gender-based violence?
Beyond their reliance on ineffective social audits, the second question Fabletics should be asking itself is how its purchasing practices impact worker willingness to come forward with allegations of gender-based violence? Tšepang Makakole, deputy general secretary of Lesotho’s National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, told Time and The Fuller Project that a lot goes unsaid because people are afraid of losing their jobs. In other words, the precarity of worker livelihoods is a barrier to reporting gender-based violence.
Which begs the question: why are worker livelihoods so precarious in the first place? There are a lot of ways to tackle this question, but a quick look at just firm level economics is telling. Namely, factories typically front all the costs of production (people and materials) with few guarantees from brands (remember all those sweeping order cancellations?). When brands push the risk of unsold inventory down to suppliers who have neither the luxury of being able to negotiate nor the cash reserves to cope with it, they help create the incentive for factory managers to keep labor cheap and flexible.
It’s unclear how Fabletics distributes financial risk with its suppliers. But if Kate Hudson, an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, is serious about gender equality, the company should be publicly examining its purchasing practices.
It’s unclear how Fabletics distributes financial risk with its suppliers. But if Kate Hudson, an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, is serious about gender equality, the company should be publicly examining its purchasing practices. It should be investigating how its practices impact job security at the factory level, and by extension, employee willingness to come forward with allegations of gender-based violence.
Which brings me to the Lesotho Agreement, a set of enforceable brand-worker agreements to combat gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho’s garment sector. The agreement was reached two years ago in response accusations of widespread rape, sexual harassment, and assault at factories producing for Levi’s, the Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands (owners of Wrangler and Lee). A key piece of the agreement is the creation of an independent body with the authority to investigate and potentially terminate supervisors accused of harassment. Fabletics has committed to “contacting the organizers of the Lesotho Agreement to discuss the process of joining.”
During our chat, Athit spoke candidly about “unlearning” sustainability narratives that position brands as workers’ protectors, and pit workers and factory managers against one another. It’s a narrative which smacks of colonialism, of the divide and conquer tactics deployed to keep two marginalized groups fighting…
On the one hand, the creation of an independent complaint investigation body is a critical step. On the other hand, the fact that the enforceability of the Lesotho Agreement is tied to brands using “their economic power to compel adherence by the suppliers” reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Kong Athit, a Cambodian union leader. During our chat, Athit spoke candidly about “unlearning” sustainability narratives that position brands as workers’ protectors, and pit workers and factory managers against one another. It’s a narrative which smacks of colonialism, of the divide and conquer tactics deployed to keep two marginalized groups fighting over an incredibly small (and shrinking) piece of the pie.
The skeptic in me can’t help but wonder: is the Lesotho agreement an extension of this divide and conquer tactic? Another way to pit workers and factory management against one another so that brands’ own practices remain firmly out of the spotlight? I’m not suggesting Fabletics shouldn’t join the agreement, but to initiate this process without publicly reckoning with how their own business practices might contribute to gender-based violence in their supply chain is inadequate and inauthentic.
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