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Viveka Risberg / Swedwatch

‘Corporate transparency’ was a baby born in pain. In the early 90’s, photos of working children in Asian garment and footwear factories were cabled out in the States, and in Europe. Asia-produced clothes and shoes became equivalent with child labor and poor working conditions. The reaction was huge; the “Child labor deterrence act” was introduced in the States in 1992, followed by consumers’ boycotts that spread to Europe.

The multinational apparel and shoe brands were forced to act. Codes of conducts were written that included bans on child labor and a set of demands based on ILO and UN conventions. They requested their suppliers in South Asia and China to sign the codes and submit to factory inspections. To give buyers full access to corporate documentation was at first perceived by the suppliers as quite impertinent. However, money talks and soon enough “transparency” was a competitive word.

A mindset change had begun. Pure ‘production mode’ was injected by value based awareness which raised questions among us Western consumers: Did the textile worker in Asia sew my blouse under decent circumstances? Is the football made by kids’ hands? The brands on the other hand did everything they could to convince everyone they were sincere about workers’ rights and environmental consideration. Corporate Social Responsibility eventually became compulsory for building brands.

Nowadays, the brands’ sustainability reports communicate high ambitions, pro-activeness and a philanthropic perspective: “We are working with our customers and our suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, use sustainable raw materials, trade ethically, and help our customers to lead healthier lifestyles. We’re doing this because it’s what you want us to do. It’s also the right thing to do. We’re calling it Plan A because we believe it’s now the only way to do business.” (Marks & Spencer.)

Since 2003, Swedwatch has published nearly 40 reports on Swedish companies’ corporate responsibility when operating in low cost countries. During the research phase we have come across a number of sustainability reports. A good report presents strategic goals, methods, time tables and concrete results. A credible report can also report on lackings, weaknesses, obstacles and even failures. Many companies avoid reporting on issues they have not come far with, for example investments in high risk countries or projects that haven’t been finalized or evaluated. Swedwatch can be one of the reasons to why some companies are defensive and careful. However, transparency creates credibility. In our experience, it’s more sustainable to make an honest try than do a greenwash effort!

Swedwatch is part of the European campaign MakeITfair which has focused on getting the global electronics industry to clean up its acts. All the way from the extractive phase (where there are risks for major human rights abuses in the mining) through the manufacturing (which is now almost exclusively made in Asian low-income countries) to the question of overconsumption and e-waste returning electronic scrap to countries like Nigeria and Ghana.

The leading mobile trademarks recently started to market “green models”, which is all good and fine. At last consumers have something good to choose when buying IT-devices! However, there is no clear definition on what is a “green” phone yet, giving room to companies to market quite small and irrelevant steps and leave the more pressing issues out. The conclusion is: Increased corporate transparency and outside scrutinizing is still needed! And in some cases, painful.

Viveka Risberg, Director Swedwatch

www.swedwatch.org