Sustainability Standards Driving Impact for Women in Global Supply Chains

June 22, 2018
  • Lauren Shields

    Former Director, BSR

Sustainability standards and multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) like Fairtrade International, Better Cotton Initiative, Rainforest Alliance, and the Fair Labor Association provide a set of tools and approaches to improve social, environmental, and economic conditions in global supply chains. These organizations and standards have played a powerful role in promoting good practice in certain industries, such as apparel and agriculture, where women make up 60-90 percent of the workforce in labor-intensive stages of production.

Gender is one key area where these groups have the opportunity to do more to drive systemic improvement for women working in factories and farms. In particular, there is potential to scale up the impact that sustainability standards and MSIs bring to women in global supply chains.

At an international level, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and SDG 5 in particular, have galvanized interest on gender equality and empowerment. The standards community is innovating around core technical issues like assurance, standard-setting, and monitoring and evaluation. Moreover, using data to drive change, working collaboratively, and breaking down silos between technical functions will further scale up the impact of these innovations on important issues, including gender.

During a recent session in São Paulo with ISEAL, an alliance of credible and innovative sustainability standards, we discussed several entry points for standards groups and MSIs to further invest in progress on gender.

  • Standards: Standards cannot be gender blind, and ISEAL members are assessing the gender component of their standards in their periodic revisions. It is important to ensure a strong gender perspective in the language—for example, including guidance on how principles such as discrimination, harassment, wages, and working hours could impact women specifically.
  • Gender-sensitive assurance: Sustainability standards can strengthen assurance processes—for instance, auditing teams should be equipped with training and facilitation skills to identify and address gender specific issues. SAN (Sustainable Agriculture Network) and Rainforest Alliance recently published an updated additional social auditing methods for sexual and psychological violence against women, which is one example of what this can look like.
  • Systematic, robust, and transparent monitoring and evaluation: Data matters, and there is interest from sustainability standards groups to include more robust and meaningful indicators to track progress on gender equality in performance monitoring efforts, as well as to conduct in-depth evaluations. The Global Coffee Platform released a common measurement framework to guide collection of data relevant to promoting gender equality in coffee value chains.
  • Capacity-building and awareness-raising: Sustainability standards can support capacity-building with suppliers to improve practices in factories and on farms, either directly or via local implementing partners that are part of existing systems. The Fair Labor Association is using its influence to raise the issue of pregnancy discrimination through its recent report.
  • Gender mainstreaming: Some organizations are showing leadership by mainstreaming gender into their own organizations, creating gender task forces to help integrate gender components across projects and departments, and investing in gender experts.

These initiatives are a great start, but there is a need to go deeper and ensure that a substantial number of sustainability standards and MSIs take a comprehensive approach to gender. That’s why ISEAL and BSR have teamed up to organize a pioneering Gender Working Group for Sustainability Standards.

The Gender Working Group, which launched in May with support from the C&A Foundation, will convene standards organizations and MSIs to share their experiences addressing gender, learn best practices, and address frontier issues like women workers’ voice and gender data.  

Our ambition through this collaboration is to drive systemic change to improve conditions for women workers in global supply chains—but we need a broad base of organizations to optimise our impact.

We will give special attention to the apparel and textile sector and facilitate cross-sectoral learning, but other perspectives are welcome. If your organization is a sustainability standard or an MSI interested in working on the topic of gender, we’d love for you to join the conversation.

For more information, please get in touch.

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