Dan Rees has spent more than 20 years in roles advocating for a garment industry with good working conditions in which people are treated with dignity. He has been the Director of Better Work for the past nine years. Prior to this, Dan was the first Director and driving force behind the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
For its Voices from the Supply Chain series, Better Work spoke to Dan in his Geneva office about his work, his passion for social justice and the struggle to convince others that his sandals are hip.
1. What does a typical day of work look like for you?
I am lucky enough to say that each day is different. I have a lot of phone conversations and video conferences with big brands, global unions, partners, employers’ organizations, donors, or representatives from the governments we gain funding from and from those who want to know what we are doing. A large part of my job involves making sure we are cooperating well with other divisions of the International Labour Organization. I also meet regularly with our global team and travel frequently.
2. What is the best and worst thing about your job?
It’s when I go to the countries we work in and hear about the benefits of what we’re doing from workers and employers. It makes it all worthwhile because you can really see what’s happening. I love that about my job, and I also love the problem-solving aspect of what we do.
The worst bit about my job is the bureaucracy, which can be endless. The paper trails and governance around what you do can cause all types of frustration for an impatient person like me.
3. What positive changes in the way the garment industry operates have you seen during your career?
I have been working in the global garment industry for 20 years now. Over that time, I have seen some pretty significant improvements in employment conditions. In the factories we work with, we have recorded real improvements – a narrowed gender pay gap, reduced working hours or employees having more take-home pay, although the prevailing conditions in the industry are still very tough. Overall, trend-wise over this period, we have seen a massive reduction in child labour including in the factories that had forced and slave labour. We feel that we have managed to reduce some of the worst forms of work in the facilities in which we operate.
4. If you could change one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be?
Only one? If I had to pick just one thing, I think it would have to be about the empowerment of workers. Everything starts with that. If I had a single wish it would be that workers were free to join organizations of their own choosing and that they could be free to bargain for themselves. If that happened, an awful lot of the other problems would be solved.
5. When it comes to ensuring good working conditions in the garment industry, what do you think is the single biggest challenge we face?
The single biggest challenge has two sides to it. It is about creating an enabling environment for people to really participate and express their rights. The other side of the same coin is that we need to see a much stronger moral and ethical compass in the global fashion industry. We need business to play its part and, to really ensure that their business partnering is done in a way that is conducive to them practicing what they preach.
6. How do you think the fashion industry will evolve over the next 10 years?
We don’t know for certain. The growing trend is production in places that are “quick to market” for Europe, North America and into Central America.
Technology is the big game changer. At some point, we are going to see technology really reshape manufacturing jobs. Over the next ten years, I expect that to play a bigger part in certain segments of the market, but not all.
What’s really reshaping the industry at the moment is not how garments are made but how they are ordered and designed. The “Prime” effect of ordering online, the closure of shops on the high street, the speeding up of the design process and the participation of consumers in this process, is really changing the way clothes are sold and how they get distributed.
7. How do you personally decide what clothing to buy, and has your work with the fashion industry influenced the way you choose and buy clothes?
Yes. A long time ago I was involved in setting up an organization called the ETI, and people used to ring me up asking where they could buy an ethical pair of socks and things like that, but I didn’t have an answer to that question and I don’t really have an answer to it now. What I do, like anyone else, is I try and buy things I need, but I suppose I filter out – even subconsciously – brands I don’t trust and don’t want to support. I tend to focus on those I have a professional relationship with.
8. What is your favourite item of clothing? Can you describe it to us and tell us what makes it special?
I am not really a fashionista and I don’t tend to fall in love with inanimate objects. But my favourite item of clothing are my Dr. Marten sandals, because I hate wearing socks. They are super comfy, and I think they make me look quite hip, although a lot of people don’t like them. I also have an association with the brand as I grew up not far from Northamptonshire, where they were always traditionally made.
9. If you could ask the people who made this item of clothing a question, what would it be?
I would have lots of questions to ask them. But above all I would like to know if they were proud of the product they made and, more importantly, if they are happy at work. Do feel they have dignity in what they do?
10. What are your personal ambitions for the future?
I would like to live in a world without poverty. That has always been my ambition. At the moment I am focused on supporting the growth of an industry that is free of violence, in which workers are paid a decent amount for a fair working week. I aspire to help change an industry that lifts millions of people out of poverty and treats them with dignity and respect, so we can all be proud of the things we wear.
This interview is part of Better Work’s Ten Questions series, capturing views from people along the length of global garment supply chains – from factory floor to high street retailer – for their perspective on the industry, the issues it faces, and its future. Find out more and hear other perspectives here.