Businesses and sustainability standards empowering women in supply chains

Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the focus of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, but it is also integral to achieving all of the SDGs. Without doubt, companies and sustainability standards have an important role to play in achieving the goals and driving systemic improvement for women working in factories and farms. In recent times, discussions on women’s empowerment have been brought to the fore with many countries around the world using hashtags and headlines to highlight the obstacles women encounter in their daily lives. So, are companies and standards taking advantage of the current climate to bring about change? And what is their role?

In July 2018, the Business Fights Poverty conference in Oxford, UK, asked how businesses can be both driven by a social purpose and profitable. Creating gender inclusive business models formed one area for discussion. The conversation explored how we can create change throughout the value chain: from getting a better representation of women on executive boards, to empowering women in the workplace. Companies shared examples of how they are forming partnerships to tackle some of the critical issues affecting women in their value chains.

Kate Clancy, Cargill’s cocoa sustainability manager, explained that in the cocoa sector women farmers are disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation that inhibits them from achieving their full potential. Cargill is working in partnership with CARE to provide financial services to women to improve their economic empowerment, increase their access to training and challenge gender stereotypes in communities. For Clancy, the business case is clear: benefits have been seen in the form of more productive farms, increased household income, improved health and nutrition, children staying in school, and improved self-esteem.

Amanda Smith, Global Sustainability Manager for Diageo, shared how Diageo is focusing on women’s economic empowerment by working with women in the hospitality sector in South East Asia. They are providing them with the skills to find work and raise awareness of their rights, as well as working with bar owners to ensure they are providing a safe workplace for women. For Smith, it is important to work with NGOs who have expertise and an understanding of the social and cultural norms that can be barriers to women in the workplace.

Increasingly businesses are recognising the importance of integrating a gender lens into their supply chain work, and so are sustainability standards and other multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). ISEAL and BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) recognise the role standards and MSIs have to play in influencing good practice. With support from C&A Foundation, they are partnering to bring together standards and MSIs to address gender issues through assurance, standard-setting and monitoring and evaluation.

In particular, the newly formed Gender Working Group aims to improve the working conditions of women in textile and apparel supply chains by promoting tailored, evidence-based strategies, tools and systems, with lessons that will be more broadly applicable to other standard organisations. By applying a gender lens to sustainability standards and MSI systems and practices, there is potential to drive systemic change for women in supply chains across multiple sectors.