Woman working in a textile factory

How Brands Can Close the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice

How Brands Can Close the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice

What is Social Justice Day?

In 2008, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) unanimously adopted the Declaration on Social Justice for ‘Fair Globalization’. Observed annually, Social Justice Day marks the commitment to achieve progress and social justice in the context of globalisation. With economic concerns dominating our outlook on global affairs, the Declaration on Social Justice symbolises a crucial socio-political shift. 

Through the Decent Work Agenda, the ILO works to advance employment that is productive, pays a fair wage, with security and social protection. It safeguards basic rights, offers equality of opportunity and treatment, prospects for personal development and the chance to have your voice heard. 

The principle of Decent Work furthers poverty reduction as a means to equitable, inclusive and sustainable development. 

Why is this day important?

While the world has witnessed economic and social progress, billions of people are trapped by an informal economy. Over 60 percent of all workers lack any kind of employment contract. Even waged and salaried workers, with just 42 percent are working on a permanent contract. This number continues to drop.  

In the UK, the gig economy has doubled in just three years, accounting for 4.7 million workers.  Known as the “working poor” a fifth of people in working UK households are trapped in relative poverty. Many rely on charities for basic needs.

Digital platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo have fundamentally changed the nature of employment, moving away from traditional 9-5 jobs. This has produced zero-hour contracts where employees work only when employers need them for shift work, often at short notice.

Digital platforms such as Uber have changed the way we work

These precarious terms of employment force millions of people into financial insecurity and make them vulnerable to exploitation and slavery. In turn, this creates a spiral of poverty, stress and poor health.

To absorb the growth of the working-age population, 600 million new jobs need to be created by 2030. However, since 2008, employment growth has averaged just 0.1 percent annually. In comparison, between 2000 and 2007, that number was 0.9 percent. By 2019, the global unemployment rate increased by more than five percent from previous years. 

Social Justice Day is an occasion to educate citizens across the world about the importance of justice, decency and equality while working for a living.

Can we have sustainability without social justice?

In a time where climate change hijacks headlines, we often conflate sustainability with purely environmental concerns. Eco-anxiety, exacerbated by vivid images of melting glaciers and burning forests, sees many of us committed to fighting the climate emergency, and rightly so. 

But sustainability goes miles beyond the environment. While pollution, water usage and dirty fabrics must be reckoned with, we cannot do so without concern for the wellbeing of those who produce what we consume. As it stands, more than 40 million people are currently trapped in modern slavery. Many of those work in the garment industry and many of them are women. 

Garment workers rarely receive social justice at work

In 2015, McKinsey’s gender report purported that “gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge.” Women constitute half of the working-age population but are often excluded from the labour market. To make it clear, the report stated that, “In a ‘full potential’ scenario in which women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.”

Keeping workers in conditions of poverty is unsustainable. To build a green economy, our supply chains must support progress.

Social Justice in the Supply Chain

Supply chains can be murky. Suppliers use subcontractors who outsource work to third parties who in turn communicate with and outsource to others. Consequently, before we know it, we have lost track of who does what. Therefore, it is often in the deep, far corners that we unveil most of the social injustice in the web of work sometimes entangled in slavery. 

To overcome the opacity of supply chains, brands can work towards implementing procedures that wash away the secrecy. 

Supply chain transparency requires companies to have full clarity on what is happening upstream in the supply chain. They must then communicate this knowledge both internally and externally. 

Fortunately, consumers are willing to pay 2% to 10% more for products from companies that provide greater supply chain transparency. In line with social justice, there is a particular emphasis on improving working conditions. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh prompted part of this sentiment. In turn, we saw the enactment of various laws such as the UK Modern Slavery Acts in 2015 with a section fully dedicated to supply chain transparency

Projects for social justice by Origin Africa
Origin Africa are doing numerous projects across the African continent

For Origin Africa, social justice was the primary purpose for creating the brand. For them, social justice means freedom. The brand embodies social justice in two ways. Firstly, it operates a fair, ethical and transparent supply chain. Secondly, it employs a commitment to sustainable development through the projects it funds. More on this later.

Fair wages 

Ultimately, there can be no social justice without fair wages. Without an income that covers basic needs, we sustain poverty and injustice.

In London, policy makers came to the realisation that the city’s soaring rents and prices dictated a living wage. It is key for brands to recognise where minimum wages fail workers, by recognising the true cost of living. 

The founders of Origin Africa, Alice and Tom explain that economic freedom is key to social justice. “We must demand a fair wage for those working in factories as well as those living in poverty.” They say, “we do so by allowing them opportunities to have control over their own future.” 

Many of the people the brand works with have been lifelong victims of environments where social injustice is endemic. Empowering these people can look as simple as installing a clean toilet in a home in rural Ethiopia to avoid the dangers of having to travel in the dark and prevent disease. Or properly irrigating fields of crops and cotton to protect a village’s income and employment amid increasingly failing rains in the Sahel of the Gambia. 

Origin Africa also aims to establish financial security initiatives for women living in poverty. They encourage women’s collectives to make financial saving plans for women unable to open bank accounts. 

Can you programme social justice?

Often, there are political, economic, and other structural barriers to the financial advancement of employees. Especially in the developing south in places such as India and Bangladesh where workers’ rights are a luxury. Luckily, brands have a great deal of leverage to implement social and economic programmes to empower workers.

Rubymoon invests 100% of its profits in business loans for women. The brand recognises the way in which financial independence allows women and their families to a brighter future. Rubymoon collaborates with LendwithCare.org to provide loans and business training to female entrepreneurs. This enables them to break generational cycles of poverty. All garments are named after the inspiring women they support and all their incredible stories are shared on the Ruby Moon website.

To Rubymoon, social justice is all about empowering women globally. The brand empowers those working in their supply chain through a women’s sewing cooperative.

We cannot have societal development without women’s development. Giving women a voice brings social justice about naturally and more quickly. Women are the changemakers who invest in nutrition, housing, education, improving not only their lives, and those of their children but of the wider community. In Rubymoon’s view, social justice can only happen through women’s empowerment.

Every bag from BEEN London is packaged by someone with a learning disability.

BEEN London applauds local labour

BEEN London tells a unique story. Every bag that is posted is packaged by someone with a learning disability. The Camden Society trains and employs young Londoners with a learning disability to package and post orders. Without this opportunity, these young people would have little prospect of meaningful employment. 

How Origin Africa supplies social justice

All projects Origin Africa funds are run by a local entrepreneur committed to the social impact of their business. This ensures that not only employees but also the surrounding community benefits. To evidence this, the brand’s borehole project in the Gambia irrigates fields from a sustainable water supply. It will kickstart a series of jobs in agriculture and the supply of organic cotton. This cotton will then be sold to Gambian artisans who will spin and weave the cotton into usable fabric. Finally, Origin Africa buys this fabric to produce an artisanal range of clothes for its shop in North Devon, UK. Additionally, they use this cotton as canvasses for artwork.

Last but not least, there is the seamstress school in the terrorism-torn state of Mali. Many business ideas in Mali flourish but rarely find the capital to actualise. In collaboration with Alain Kouadious, the brand is setting up a sewing school. Beyond training women to create fashionable clothing, the school will also teach business management and how to commercialise skills.

How Pala Eyewear helps the world see clearly

Over 640 million people are unable to access the eye care they need. Unsurprisingly, a pair of spectacles can be an invaluable economic tool providing empowerment for the wearer. Glasses enable reading, learning and access to better education. Furthermore, a pair provides a person with the chance to operate a machine, or to thread a needle and improve overall job prospects. So access is vital.

Pala Eyewear provide spectacles for social justice
Pala Eyewear support projects that offer spectacles on the African continent

Pala Eyewear works closely with international charity Vision Aid Overseas. Operating in Burkina Faso, Zambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, Vision Aid Overseas has provided eye tests and glasses to over one million people worldwide in the past 30 years.

One of Pala Eyewear’s projects includes building a new Vision Centre. The brand also purchases equipment and sponsors outreach programmes. Essentially, these are sustainable, long-term solutions that facilitate eyecare, tests and provision of spectacles. From the funding of these projects, the brand can calculate a ‘cost per patient’ helped. This is the cost you provide when you buy Pala Eyewear. 

Founder of Pala Eyewear, John Pritchard explains:

For me, social justice means standing up for an ideal or acts to improve the circumstances for communities and individuals who do not have the means to cope or compete without the necessary assistance. Pressures on the planet, resources and population are coming sharply into focus right now, and I feel now more than ever, we need the collective will of people to be filled with a sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare. By adopting this mindset we will tackle and overcome social injustices, creating an overall better and safer world.

Do consumers have a say in social justice?

Ultimately, there are no sustainable businesses without conscious consumers. Demand drives supply. H&M, Zara, M&S advertise their green initiatives, not due to internal pressures, but to capitalise on consumers’ values. 

To build a socially just economy, we must protest with our purchases. That translates to swiping our cards only where brands care for the environment and for their employees. An article on transparent supply chains by Harvard Business Review, tells us that the pressure for supply chain transparency is a direct result of consumer demands. 

World Social Justice Day marks a crucial commitment to fairness, equality and sustainable growth. To further its progress, we must all take part and accept responsibility. One way to ensure social justice is simply to spend where our values lie. That means backing brands that pay a living wage and work towards supply chain transparency. And of course, brands and businesses that also support social and economic programs that empower workers. If we can do this, we can ensure that social justice reaches everyone. 

Written by Kimie Frengler