Blog post

Small Hands, Big Brands:
What Can Be Done to Ensure Child Rights are Respected in the Fashion Industry?

Global Child Forum


The global fashion sector is a 1.3 USD trillion industry that employs more than 300 million people in its value chain. In such an impactful industry, fashion brands must do all they can to ensure the health and well-being of children, from prohibiting child labor to installing responsible marketing practices.

Right now, fashionistas are flocking to European fashion weeks. However, the glitz and glamour of the runway are a far cry from the reality that, in some instances, apparel manufacturers negatively impact children*.

The apparel sector has enormous potential to contribute to social and economic development by providing decent work and improving the livelihoods of its workers. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the clothing business is a USD 1.3 trillion industry globally, employing more than 300 million people along the value chain. But with this economic might, comes great responsibility for the planet and people – not the least children.

At Global Child Forum, we urge companies to take a holistic child rights approach by examining how companies impact children by addressing their risks and opportunities. One of the ways we offer support to companies, and provide insights for company stakeholders, is through our children’s rights and business benchmarks.

Benchmark reveals risks and opportunities

Together with the Boston Consulting Group, Global Child Forum has been benchmarking companies since 2014 and produces the world’s largest and most comprehensive benchmark on children’s rights and business. To date, we have assessed nearly 3,000 companies across all sectors on a range of indicators covering children’s rights in the workplace, marketplace, community and environment.  As such, we have a lot of data on the apparel and retail sector and how the largest companies in this sector impact children  — both positively and negatively — through many dimensions, such as the products they sell, their marketing policies, and employment practices, as well as through their supply chain management and impact on a child’s physical environment.

“Our benchmark shows that impact on children’s lives is often overlooked by companies. By highlighting the gaps in their reporting, we spotlight this fact and give incentives to improve not only reporting, but actions that improve children’s lives,” says Nina Vollmer, Global Child Forum’s Senior Children’s Rights and Business Specialist.

Data from 2021*** within the Apparel & Retail sector shows that most apparel and footwear companies have a child labour policy and conducted supplier assessments to ensure that their policies against child labour were implemented. But looking more closely at this dataset reveals a real opportunity for this sector to improve its transparency regarding implementing and monitoring compliance with child labour and supply chain policies.

Much more can be achieved through transparent reporting on risks and incidents and remedial or preventive actions taken in response to risks and incidents. The upcoming EU  Corporate Social Reporting Directive (and the Corporate Social Due Diligence Directive) is one piece of driving legislation that will require large companies to identify, prevent and mitigate these types of human rights violations throughout their supply chain.




Responsible Marketing

Beyond child labour, our benchmark also highlights brands’ roles in responsible advertising and marketing. In fact, the apparel & retail sector scored a meager 3.4 out of 10 on marketplace indicators. Physical or psychological harm to children can occur through unsafe products or inappropriate advertising. Although children are regular users of apparel and footwear company products, this sector does not appear to prioritize children’s safety. For example, according to the screening conducted on apparel companies in our benchmark, most companies lack a responsible marketing or product safety policy that considers children, which is essential even when children are not the intended target group or consumer.  As evidenced by the latest scandals involving Balenciaga, Benetton, and Gucci, failure to take a child’s rights approach when marketing their products can enormously harm children and damage a brand’s reputation.

Environmental Impact

Another key pillar our benchmark examines is the impact of a company’s operations on its community and environment. The impact apparel and retail companies have is significant, with key risks identified concerning air, water, and/or soil pollution from production sites and industrial water usage, causing water stress for local communities. Again, not a great showing on this parameter either, with this sector recording a 5.8 out of 10.

Certainly, the apparel sector is not alone in facing these challenges. However, given their deep and complex supply chains and extensive consumer-facing sales, this sector has an enormous responsibility to address their challenges and lead the way to ensure the well-being and safety of children.

So what can you do?

Much can be done to ensure that a child rights approach within this sector is prioritized. First, you need to understand your company’s impact on children by conducting a child rights impact assessment, and you can learn from your peers about a solutions-based approach to such critical issues as child labour.

You can seriously take stock of your marketing practices to ensure that children receive the highest consideration. You can also examine your environmental impact, providing a safe and clean community for the most vulnerable. Companies can work together, harnessing a coordinated approach involving NGOs, governments, factories, trade unions, and others to use their economic influence to change behavior. And companies can join the many organizations and networks which facilitate dialogue to raise awareness, share innovative practices and promote action to improve the human rights impact on children in the sector.

Despite complexities and challenges, the fashion sector must take full responsibility for how its operations impact children.  Then, and only then, can we applaud fashion on the runway.


The ILO defines child labour: as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”

*The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international treaty that recognizes the human rights of children, defined as persons up to the age of 18 years.

** Ellen MacArthur Foundation

*** Global Child Forum’s next global benchmark, scanning over 1,000 companies, will be released in Q4 2023. Read more about our benchmarks here.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to see how your company scored on our benchmark, use the search function on our website and find your company score here.

Additional reading:


Linda Ravin Lodding

Head of Communications

As the Head of Communications, Linda is responsible for bringing our work, and our message, to our stakeholders. She has long career in communications both in the private and public sector working for UN-affiliated organisations such as The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. Her public sector work is augmented by assignments in advertising, internet consulting and brand development. She holds an undergraduate degree from Barnard College, Columbia University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University. Linda joined Global Child Forum in 2015.