&Wider makes the fashion industry face reality

After having discovered working conditions in global supply chains were not only poor, but also not monitored using anonymous data direct from workers, Lea Esterhuizen was determined to make a contribution to changing this. Being a methodologist specialised in gathering sensitive data from scared populations, she believes better data on working conditions will drive improvements in the lives of workers in global supply chains. She founded &Wider and designed a research methodology that collects anonymous data from workers in fashion and other global industries. The insights drawn from this data provide a mirror – a clear picture of what’s really going on with working conditions in the factories where our clothes are made. With these insights &Wider helps fashion brands to support their suppliers to make improvements where needed.

Interview Lea Estherhuizen

Founder &Wider, collects anonymous data from workers

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Lea Estherhuizen at the &Wider office in Amsterdam

Whether it’s climate impact, working conditions or the lack of model diversity, the fashion industry has been under fire for several years now. A growing group of consumers – and even people within the industry itself – have been increasingly pressing for change. The big question is ‘how’? And in the meantime, the industry hurtles on. This five-part series explores the call for more transparency in fashion, as increasingly ‘transparency’ is thrown into the mix when talking about making fashion sustainable. But what does transparency in fashion mean? How does it affect the industry, businesses and consumers? In this second part we feature Lea Esterhuizen, founder of &Wider. Using scalable technology, her company collects anonymous data from workers. In 2018 &Wider was part of the Fashion for Good Accelerator programme.

“I know it’s a popular assumption that big fashion companies don’t want to change, but that’s not what I see. We have three clients in the fashion industry and we’re in conversation with a further 20 fashion companies. I feel that everyone knows that they’re sitting on a ticking time bomb and is nervous about keeping the lid on.

I think there’s a consensus among everyone in the fashion industry that transparency is key for moving towards sustainability. For brands this starts with mapping out and tracing their whole supply chain. They should know who, how and where their garments are made. The second step is for brands to know what’s really going on in their supply chain and where their responsibilities lie. With &Wider we’re focusing on providing an accurate and balanced picture of working conditions in factories that supply to brands. This picture can be used by both suppliers and brands to improve working conditions in factories.

However existing clients have often not waited to map their supply chains before coming to us. They already know where the greatest risks lie, and so are anxious to investigate immediately, so they can act promptly to protect workers, collaborate with suppliers and avoid disruption of supply.

“It’s a popular assumption that big fashion companies don’t want to change. That’s not what I see”

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Clothing factory in Phnom Penh (not a client from &Wider). Image from Flickr

“We’re focusing on providing an accurate and balanced picture of working conditions in factories that supply to brands”

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Clothing factory in Phnom Penh (not a client from &Wider). Image from Flickr

Fashion brands should stop being scared

Many brands are scared to embark on this transparency journey – I feel. They see mapping their global supply chain as an enormous or even impossible task. Secondly, they’re afraid of what they may find when they start looking. At times I discover brands are not aware of the tools available that can help them address issues effectively. All in all, brands are often daunted before they’ve even started to seriously address transparency. I believe it is our responsibility, as providers and sustainability enablers, to say to brands: ‘We have got tools to make it simple and scalable. So, don’t worry, we’ll support you. It’s going to be easier than you think.’

I feel confident saying that improving working conditions is manageable for both brands and suppliers. Especially because in fashion everyone is in the same boat. Our clients may pick their three main competitors and I can assure them: different logo, different colours, but their reality is exactly the same. Therefore, my call out to brands is: ‘Stop being scared and start learning what’s happening in your supply chain. Whatever the issue is, it’s manageable when you have the right tools and the right partners’.

“I feel many brands are scared to embark on this transparency journey”

Revealing the invisible

Despite the technological advancements of recent years, to know what’s really going on in factories, the fashion sector still relies heavily on physical inspections conducted by auditors. As part of these on-site visits, auditors usually conduct face-to-face interviews with around 10% of the workers. Audits are either announced or semi-unannounced, which means factories will be in their ‘Sunday-best’. Really, I have yet to hear about a completely unannounced audit. An experienced auditor with a good sixth sense will detect misconduct though, but the system clearly has its shortcomings.

What we do at &Wider is to call workers on their mobile phones and ask them to report on their working conditions and wellbeing. Workers can decide when we call them and they can answer by tapping numbers on their phone, so they don’t have to talk. Even though our method is completely anonymous, we still need to earn workers’ trust. As a methodologist, this is my expertise. I have the ability to design the right research methodology and ask the right questions to get trustworthy and honest answers. We can run the call cycles three to four times a year and these are fully automated. Depending on the region we’re able to reach 30% to even 90% of the workers. The results are visualised for brands and suppliers on a dashboard that is accessible via a secured cloud. The dashboard doesn’t judge, it’s more like an x-ray revealing what was invisible before. It also shows what goes well, improvements that have been made, what needs attention and ideally should be improved. This methodology isn’t replacing auditing. To the contrary, I believe we’re enhancing current supplier assessment systems by contributing to a more accurate and balanced picture of what’s going on in the supply chain of fashion brands. Anonymous data direct from workers offers detail we didn’t have before through conventional social auditing.

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Lea Esterhuizen presenting at Fashion for Good, the international hub based in Amsterdam for sustainable fashion and innovation. &Wider was part of the Fashion for Good-Plug and Play Accelerator in 2018. Photo by Fashion for Good

Changing workers’ lives

We believe that there’s only one party that can materially change workers’ lives, and that’s their own employer. The employer is the supplier to the brand/s. Even more so than brands, suppliers are often anxious to work with us. Although it has never happened, suppliers feel there’s this risk that brands may decide to withdraw following the results. We believe withdrawing from a supplier will only make the workers more vulnerable – and that’s the last thing we want. It’s even the opposite of what we strive for. Therefore, to ensure results are interpreted correctly and contribute to making a positive impact on workers’ lives, we have a dedicated team supporting brands and suppliers on how to use the results most effectively to make material improvements in workers’ lives. For &Wider, having a scalable system is useful, but most importantly you need a methodology for building trust. Brands and suppliers need trust to work with us, but we also need to build and retain trust amongst the workers, so they answer the calls and feel safe enough to answer the questions candidly.

Since I started &Wider in 2014, the call for transparency has been increasing among consumers and lawmakers, but also within fashion brands. I think we may reach the ‘tipping point’ in five years, which means that two-thirds of the biggest brands are ‘doing it’ (engaging directly and anonymously with workers) and the remaining companies start feeling uncomfortable that they aren’t ‘doing it’. This would mean it will finally become normal for brands to look into the mirror and see what really happens in their supply chains.”

“We believe there’s one party that can materially change workers’ lives; that’s their own employer”

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&Wider team based in South Africa. From left to right Kudakwashe Kandemiiri, Mando Kapeso, Emily Vining and Sesihle Manzini

&Wider team based in Amsterdam. Left Meike van Vlerken and right Lea Esterhuizen

Visit 26 May our event on transparency in the fashion industry

As part of this series, we organise on 26 May in Amsterdam an event on transparency in fashion in Amsterdam. Together with live drawer Nina from Ikigai agency, we’ll create a visual Consumer Fashion Transparency Manifest. You can buy your tickets for this event (fee is eur 14,50).

About Lea

Work experience

Sep 2014-present: Founder &Wider
Mar 2013-present: Social researcher and methodologist, Cape Town
Dec 2009-Dec 2011: Save the Children Sweden, positioned in Beirut
2007-2009: Director of Research at UnLtd, London
2005-2008: Co-founder Most Mira, UK/Bosnia

See Lea’s LinkedIn profile for her full resume.

Education

2000-2005: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Royal Holloway, U. of London
1997-1999: MPhil, Social Sciences, University of Stellenbosch (South Africa)
1995-1996: Honours, Political Science and Government, University of Cape Town
1992-1994: Bachelor Social Sciences, University of Cape Town

Interesting links

About the Fashion for Good-Plug and Play Accelerator programme

The Fashion for Good-Plug and Play Accelerator is a 12-week programme for startups driving innovation in sustainability, circularity and transparency to make all fashion good. It’s part of the global Fashion for Good initiative that was launched on 30 March 2017, with the ambition to make all fashion good.

&Wider was one of the twelve start-ups selected for batch 4 of the accelerator programme. Another start-up in batch 4 that focuses on transparency is TrusTrace. They help brands define a clear plan for establishing product-level traceability from the origin of the raw material to consumption and recycling. Using a scalable digital platform, they can measure, monitor, and communicate various activities in the supply chain and assess the sustainability footprint at each stage of the value chain.

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