In 2003, Michael Kobori from Levi Strauss & Co made his first visit to the then nascent Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) programme. He met with Ros Harvey, the head of (BFC) for lunch at an outdoor café in Phnom Penh. They talked about current and future labour challenges in the global garment industry and how they could be resolved. At the time, BFC was the only body of its kind reporting on factory conditions as part of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
“Ros was running BFC on a shoe string at that stage and I remember us sitting there envisioning similar programmes in the ten largest garment producing countries in the world. We imagined the impact that such an expansion could have” says Kobori.
He continued: “More than 10 years later, Better Work is well on its way to achieving this vision. Better Work’s growth in countries like Lesotho, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Haiti has been important for us in helping to improve labour conditions with our vendors.”
Since that 2003 afternoon in Phnom Penh, Better Work has expanded to eight countries and today reaches close to 1000 factories but is now one of a many organizations in the industry that clothing brands can partner with on improving conditions within supply chains.
Kobori says that for Levi Strauss and Co. to get involved with an initiative, it must meet key principles. “The basic criterion is: Does it add value? Is it helping to improve workers’ lives and change the industry? Is it credible? Better Work meets all of these criteria. It has demonstrated that it can bring results and most importantly, it has changed conditions for workers.”
He continued: “Better Work being part of the ILO is critical. The tripartite structure makes it credible. It is very important to us that Better Work isn’t just business, it isn’t just workers, it isn’t just government, it’s all three.”
In terms of results that have come from the partnership, Kobori says that engagement with Better Work has been effective in building the capabilities of the factories who supply Levi Strauss and Co.
“The capacity building elements of Better Work has been important to its mission and brought value to us to the point that where Better Work operates, we no longer do our own monitoring. Vendor (factories supplying Levi Strauss and Co. products) performance has improved because of Better Work.”
Kobori says that over the years, factories have become more receptive towards being involved with Better Work. “Our vendors have warmed to Better Work over the years and embrace it more. They have seen how it improves their relationship with us and seen that it means buyers stopping their own duplicative monitoring. It has eliminated duplication, definitely” he says.
The origins of Levi Strauss and Co. work into corporate social responsibility and sustainability began in 1991, with the development of the company’s code of conduct to support human rights around the world. Like many clothing companies, the realization that it was necessary to address working conditions in their supply chain came to Levi Strauss & Co. from within the organization.
“It was our own employees saying that we had a responsibility to the people making our product no matter where they were.” says Kobori.
Today, sustainability is imbedded into their work with 26 team members dotted around the globe in places including the United States, Mexico, Brussels, Poland, Turkey, Cambodia and China.
Sustainability work includes an initiative alongside one of Better Work’s parent organizations, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) providing low cost financing for suppliers who perform well and a programme called Improving Workers Wellbeing which surveys worker needs outside of factories and then makes it a requirement for key Levi Strauss and Co. supplier factories to provide them through partner programmes.
Moving forward, Kobori would like to see the Better Work programme continue to evolve and expand the advisory elements of the programme in addition to exploring how the “useful” role that Better Work plays with governments and labour unions could “play an even more effective role”.
Although many challenges still remain, Kobori says that Levi Strauss and Co. have seen some promising developments. He says: “We are now at a point where labour standards and health and safety standards have become basic business requirements and our supplier factories know that they not optional anymore. We’re not in the policing business anymore. We’re in the advising and capacity building business.”