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Sustainable supply chains: live better, work better

For many years, GIZ has been supporting its commissioning parties in promoting environmental protection and human rights at different points in supply chains.

It is not only women who meet at the ‘women’s cafés’ found at many industrial sites in Bangladesh. Factory workers who want to advocate more strongly for their own rights can network and obtain information there. The cafés are part of the Sustainability in the Textile and Leather Sector (STILE) project, which GIZ is implementing on behalf of BMZ to enhance social and environmental standards along supply chains, specifically where the need is greatest – in factories and among workers in the manufacturing countries.

Since January 2023, the Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains has given German companies a legal framework for complying with environmental and social standards when purchasing from and cooperating with other businesses. But long before the legal framework existed, GIZ worked for various clients on projects to improve people’s living conditions at different points along supply chains. We devise dialogue programmes for key sectors in Germany, offer training for potential partner companies abroad, and support structures already in place at local level – such as the women’s cafés in Bangladesh.

Hammering out solutions in discussion

Many of the adverse impacts for people at local level can be avoided if the companies awarding contracts factor in consequences for the entire supply chain from the outset. When the German Government adopted the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs commissioned GIZ to work with companies in the key branches of industry in Germany to identify major challenges and potential. ‘What emerged were dialogues within the individual branches,’ recounts Harald Küppers, who manages the project for GIZ. Such dialogues pursue a multi-stakeholder approach, with private businesses, industry associations, trade unions and civil society around the table. Together they devise ways of integrating the National Action Plan into the everyday operations of companies. This includes drawing up a human rights policy, reporting regularly on human rights in the supply chains, and firmly establishing grievance mechanisms. ‘Our first dialogues were with the automotive industry. Not only because it is a key sector, but because major market leaders had actively asked for our support,’ Küppers explains.

Effective at several levels:


factories cooperated with STILE in 2022, to implement higher environmental and social standards.


factories subsequently launched Green Button certification processes.


is the number of times workers sought advice in women’s cafés to resolve conflicts.

Business Scouts for Development

The Business Scouts for Development Programme is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and implemented by GIZ. The Business Scouts liaise between the private sector and development cooperation. They are familiar with the needs of the private sector as well as with the local frameworks and legislation in place in the individual countries. This allows the Business Scouts network to devise innovative approaches for development cooperation and launch specific cooperation projects.

Business Scouts convey an understanding of sustainability

Companies in South Africa are also interested in building knowledge about fair working conditions. Sylvia Opperman is responsible for import management at the apparel manufacturer Cape Union Mart in Cape Town. She attended a 50-hour training course on sustainable supply chains devised and run by the Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry under the Business Scouts for Development Programme. The first course ran from May to July 2022 as a pilot project. ‘Training helped me understand where human rights play a part in our daily business overall,’ she sums up. ‘We as a company are already quite well positioned in that regard. But we did not have easy access to documentation beforehand, and it was not customer facing.’ As a result of her training, Opperman drove forward the development of a monitoring system in her company that documents all relevant issues and processes. In this way, she helps directly in ensuring fair working conditions on the ground, while also profiling her company as an interesting partner for the German market.

Portrait photo: Timo Pleyer.

»The high level of demand from local companies far exceeded our expectations. Over 100 companies applied for the 15 places in the initial test run, demonstrating that we are offering what is needed.«

Timo Pleyer works as a Business Scout for the Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He adapted the training course, which was originally developed for German companies, to the South African context.

Addressing factory workers directly

GIZ’s STILE project also focuses on information, documentation and transparency with regard to environmental and social standards. The project aims to improve working conditions in Bangladesh and is collaborating with various stakeholder groups to that end. STILE works with Community Leaders, who develop a network of personal contacts in communities in their home districts around textile factories, building trust. This then allows them to convey information about health issues, labour rights and human rights. The women’s cafés in the towns are one place where communities can meet. ‘Above all, we try to reach new workers, who still know little about their rights,’ says Nazrul Islam, Community Leader in the STILE project.

The textile and leather sector employs over 4.5 million people in Bangladesh, making it one of the country’s main sources of revenue. ‘STILE is a project that works at many different levels. We are supporting moves to improve wastewater treatment legislation, undertaking preliminary work for certification processes, informing workers and helping eradicate gender-based discrimination,’ explains Victoria Hohenhausen, who works locally in the STILE project. She is particularly happy that 62 per cent of the 90,000 or more people addressed by the project in 2022 are women. ‘Women make up more than half of the workforce in this sector. Workplace discrimination, the lack of maternity leave, and poor prospects of promotion because of traditional gender roles conspire to make them particularly vulnerable. In conjunction with the Fair Wear Foundation, we have therefore been offering training courses in factories since last year. We support women workers, helping them address gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.’

Photo: Seamstresses wearing headscarves and face masks sit in a large hall.
© Noor Alam
Portrait photo: Mohammed Nazrul Islam.
© GIZ / Nazir Hussain

»I am proud to be
a Community-Leader.«

Part of GIZ’s STILE project involves spreading knowledge among textile workers. In this interview, Mohamed Nazrul Islam tells us about his experience as a community leader for the AMI NARGIS campaign. Alongside his volunteering, Islam works as an iron man at a local textile factory.

One of the aims of the STILE project is to strengthen the rights of textile workers in Bangladesh. What role do the communities they live in play in this?

Communities play a crucial role in strengthening the rights of workers in Bangladesh. As community leaders, we can use our position to educate workers about their entitlements and encourage them to speak up for their rights. This is especially important with new workers who join the workforce and don’t know much about their rights yet, for example regarding wages, holiday allowance or environmental safety in factories.

What are the main issues you face in conversations within your community?

To really reach the people, we had to build up trust first, which proved to be rather difficult. The sources of information we used – government agencies and factories – were, although reputable, unfamiliar to the community. So, we had to do a lot of explaining, because people tend to mistrust the authorities or didn’t understand how to apply the information in an everyday context.

This happened with the topic of COVID-19 vaccines, for example. Contrary to what official sources said, there was a misconception that if you are vaccinated you will never get COVID-19. We had to inform people that even if you get vaccinated, you still must maintain the general hygiene rules. Sharing personal experiences as members of the community was the key to raising awareness and building up trust, albeit slowly.

How does the initiative improve the situation of the people in your community?

STILE – or Ami Nargis, which is the name of our local campaign – showed us how to engage with our communities. Campaigns to spread information about topics of our daily life, like the prevention of pandemics, help us to improve our quality of life. Through Ami Nargis, we were able to reach a lot of workers in our community both offline and online, for example through a Facebook quiz or YouTube videos.

The project also allowed us to connect with other community leaders, to share best practices and network with them.

What are you planning to do as a community leader in the future, also going beyond the COVID-19 campaign?

I am proud to be a community leader. I joined this campaign because it helps me and my community to understand our rights and to use them for a better life. In the future, I plan to work on more topics such as raising awareness about what to do in case of a fire or an accident.

I also want to inspire others to become community leaders like me. I especially want to empower women to be more vocal about their safety and rights and raise awareness on women’s safety issues for the people around them.