Small Size, Big Effect

A case study on how to maximize social impact by seeking and realizing strategic partnerships.

by Anton Wundrak, December 13, 2016

​Workers in the global south are often put in a passive position when it comes to the sustainability and fair globalization debate in the western world. In this case study, Anton Wundrak from dna merch, a young social enterprise that specializes in the fair production of band t-shirts and other promotional garments, shares some valuable insights on how his small startup has managed to maximize their social impact despite limited resources - and ultimately, how revolutionizing supply chains can change the discourse.

Our immediate supply chain currently consists of three main partners. We buy 100 percent organic cotton for our fabric via Fair&Organic from India. The Social Cooperative, Humana Nova, receives these fabrics and sews them into beautiful t-shirts. Printex finishes these shirts with screen prints using water based eco-colours. Counting in the employees of the small manufacturers Fair&Organic works with, the combined number of people working for these three partners is likely to be around 50 to 60. It is safe to say that at least half of them in one way or another work for us during the realisation of a certain project.

In India alone, an estimated 3.5 million people work in the textile and garment industry. Considering this number, you might want to ask if dna merch - with its alternative approach - can be anything more than a drop in the bucket. And indeed, you are absolutely right if you ask so! Compared to the conventional industry, the green, fair trade, sustainable or whatever you would like to call it sector combined is still a super tiny part of the whole game. A fact that makes you wonder what difference you can actually make as a small organically growing start-up from Berlin Neukölln.

In this article today, we want to share with you how we developed a unique approach to maximize our social impact by seeking and realizing strategic partnerships.

Let’s start by briefly looking at what we think are two popular beliefs in today’s mainstream sustainability debate.

  1. Western end consumers have the power to make globalization fair and sustainable by shopping ethically and consciously.
  2. To build trust in consumers, companies should certify their supply chains and guarantee certain standards through the means of independent audits.

Having dedicated quite some time to the issue of implementing international labour standards in global supply chains and especially after realising own on the ground research projects into the matter, we are critical to both these assumptions. Why? Whereas there is absolutely no doubt that our day-to-day shopping decisions matter and can drive companies to adjust and change their policies in a progressive way, it is way too easy to put all the responsibility in the end consumer’s pocket. We think it is hardly possible to always filter all products according to their social and ecological footprint and always make a conscious and ethical decision without going crazy, especially when the majority of products are still produced under poor conditions. Another aspect is the price. It is kind of hypocritical to blame the growing number of working poor in the Western world for not shopping ethically.

Last but not least, an approach that solely relies on the consumer power somewhat tends to treat the workers in the global south as passive subjects that depend on our goodwill and help. Hence, it hinders us from seeing them as people just like us and makes it harder to create relations on eye level.

Audits are problematic, too. The vast majority of them have proven to be merely a paperwork exercise and do not lead to sustainable improvements of working conditions. A recent study titled “Ethical Audits and the Supply Chains of Global Corporations" concludes that audits, “are ineffective tools for detecting, reporting, or correcting environmental and labour problems in supply chains [and] they reinforce existing business models and preserve the global production status quo." As with the consumer power argument, the biggest problem with audits is the passive position that the workers are put in.

We believe that it is the workers themselves who usually know best what needs to be improved at their workplace. But once they start to organize collectively, they are often met with repression from management. Many workers get fired for such activities even though most companies find fake reasons to do so because almost all the big corporations have formulated so-called voluntary codes of conduct in which they guarantee every worker to join and form organizations of their own choice. Other obstacles for effective organizing are lack of time and the limited resources that the workers and activists have at hand.

Taking all of this into account, we decided to join forces with an already existing global grassroots network of workers and activists called ExChains. For every t-shirt we sell, be it business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C), a fixed percent of the net sales price goes to ExChains. This network organizes transnational solidarity in very practical terms. It empowers both garment workers in South Asia and retail workers in Germany by enabling them to exchange information about their working conditions and by developing joint strategies to pressure global corporations from both sides of the value chain.

Our cooperation with ExChains focuses on India since that is where we buy our fabric. Over the last few years, workers there organised in the ExChains network pushed through higher minimum wages and just recently ensured the government withdrew plans to cut unemployment and pension funds. The indirect impact we have on the global garment industry through our support for ExChains is pretty amazing. Remember, our own direct production partners employ around 50 to 60 people combined, of which maybe half work from time to time for us. Now, the South Indian Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), which is a member of ExChains and organizes workers in and around the city of Bangalore, has around 8,000 members. However, their efforts in organizing protests in the streets and pressuring the Government led to the first increase of minimum wages after 12 years. What’s most important here is that this increase concerns all of the 500,000 people working in the export-oriented garment industry in that region. In summary, this means that the dna merch community has indirectly impacted on the working conditions of half a million people instead of ‘only’ 50 to 60 people.

Another way we found to maximize our impact is through an annual band shirt crowdfunding campaign. The idea is quite simple, yet effective. The music bands release an exclusive t-shirt design with us which can only be ordered online within a limited period of time. Last year almost 20 bands from 6 different countries participated in our successful pilot campaign. It is a win-win situation! One, because we use the popularity of the bands to reach way more people than we would be able to reach by ourselves.

Second, because the bands gain credit and authenticity among their fans, followers and the public for walking the walk and not only talking the talk regarding their commitment for workers' rights. Around 1,000 band shirts were ordered and we were able to give an immediate sum of 1,000 Euros to the ExChains network. That may not sound too much but in fact it is almost ten times what a garment worker in Bangalore earns per month at the moment.

Our second band shirt campaign has just kicked off and runs until January 8. This year, it features 14 bands from 3 different countries among them Madsen from Germany, Deafness By Noise from Croatia and The Casualties from the US. The profits from the campaign shirts will be shared equally between the ExChains network, the Social Cooperative - Humana Nova - the bands, and us. ExChains India will use the generated money to further implement and strengthen their strategy to organise workers at big supplier factories of Western corporations, such as GAP, H&M, and ZARA. Humana Nova will invest in new machines and we will stock up on fabrics. You are welcome to support the campaign by following this link! Apart from the band shirts there are lots of other cool stuff to choose from, such as our popular “fuck charity love solidarity” buttons, shirts and bags. If you want to give them as presents, you can download free gift cards on the campaign page.

Let us finish by quickly sharing one more lesson we learned that may be of value to you. Basically, it has been all about learning to be flexible and pragmatic, and not feel bad about it.

Having production partners that are small in size, we encountered a couple of situations where we simply could not deliver what was expected from us from customers. We are currently lacking the capacities to fulfill large orders of t-shirts and other garments through our own direct production chain alone. This is especially the case if there are time constraints and close deadlines. We have come to understand that we would undermine our goal to grow organically if we were not able to come up with some working alternatives to realise bigger orders in the meantime.

Hence, we decided to become business customers of three bigger players in the promotional garments world. All of them are members of the multi-stakeholder initiative Fair Wear Foundation, which is governed not only by NGOs and businesses but also by trade unions. This way, we have access to a variety of garments in big amounts and in short time if needed.

In other words, there is a good reason for relying not only on our own direct production chain because it enables us to remain capable of acting and generating incomes. These incomes allow us to invest in the development of dna merch and our direct partner network, so that we are also in the position to continue supporting the ExChains network and thus continuing to have a social impact on the conventional garment industry.