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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: A Conversation with Fair Labor Association President and CEO Sharon Waxman

In an end-of-the-year Q&A, Fair Labor Association President and CEO Sharon Waxman reflects on FLA’s efforts in 2022 to raise the bar for human rights in global supply chains and offers her perspective on emerging opportunities for the Fair Labor movement.

The last several years have been marked by enormous uncertainty and change at all levels of society — and within the FLA global network. What did you find to be most notable about 2022?

It’s often said that change can bring growth, and we really saw that aphorism come to life in 2022. Even while adjusting to the initial shock of the pandemic in 2020, FLA staff didn’t miss a beat. Every new challenge we faced became an opportunity to grow more nimble, expand our capacity, and respond to the needs of workers in factories and farms around the world. I’m excited to share more about these efforts in our newly released annual report for 2020 and 2021.

In 2022, we continued to successfully translate uncertainty and change into responsiveness, resilience, and growth, all while raising the bar for human rights in global supply chains. The Fair Labor team is now the strongest and most capable we’ve had since I joined the organization and includes staff with amazing experience ranging from European Union and United Nations institutions to corporate brands, based in seven countries. In October, our board approved FLA’s new strategic plan for 2023–2028, which provides us with a strong foundation as we approach the next five years.

What opportunities do you see on the horizon for the Fair Labor movement?

It will be very interesting to see how the passage of human rights due diligence (HRDD) laws in Europe will shift dynamics for companies, and whether these new efforts can deliver promised changes for workers. For two decades, FLA has been filling a governance gap–holding companies accountable to the highest standards in human rights at work. As a result, Fair Labor companies have, for years, demonstrated that it is indeed possible to protect the rights of workers while staying competitive in the marketplace. Our accredited companies are extremely well positioned to meet emerging HRDD laws.

As more governments require companies to implement standards and systems for human rights, FLA is here to help: our accreditation programs keep companies accountable, while our technical assistance and innovative tools, like the Fair Compensation dashboard, provide practical support when companies need it.

FLA’s network extends to over 30 countries across the globe, which means you are traveling a good bit. When you look back on 2022, which trips will stick out in your memory?

While COVID measures kept me generally close to home, I attended the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen and bring the message of FLA’s living wage work to a new audience. I also had a chance to take some personal time with my husband and son on a very memorable visit to Bukhara, which is on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. The two thousand plus year old city was long an important economic and cultural center in Central Asia and is one of the best-preserved Islamic cities in the region. It was wonderful to get lost in the beautiful architecture of the ancient mosques, minarets, and bazaars. There’s a cotton cluster just outside Bukhara, and I spent a morning with our local partners there to get a sense of how the sector is changing in Uzbekistan. I saw the cotton fields, the gins, and the factories where textiles are made for export. Many of our colleagues in civil society have pushed for labor reforms in Uzbekistan for decades, and it was thrilling to see the results.

We’ve heard you are quite the reader. Any favorite books from 2022?

This is a hard question because I read a lot and it’s hard to pick favorites! I know we don’t have all day, so I’ll share just four wonderful books, each of which uniquely speaks to the same resilience and growth that characterized 2022:

The first is The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson. It tells the inspirational story of Jennifer Doudna, a biochemistry professor at my alma mater UC Berkeley, who developed CRISPR, a groundbreaking tool to edit DNA. CRISPR works like genetic scissors and was an indispensable building-block in the coronavirus vaccine development. I appreciate how Isaacson spotlights a brilliant woman who, despite being discouraged from pursuing a career in science, did it anyway and changed the world. Dr. Doudna, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, is a model for all who are or have been discouraged from persisting in our dreams.

I also read two books on the US civil rights movement: March, a graphic novel trilogy told from late Congressman John Lewis’ perspective, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The lives of both men illustrate two different approaches to social change. John Lewis sought to influence the system from within; Malcolm X pushed for change from outside. Securing civil rights in the United States was — and continues to be — a long road. As with FLA’s mission to advance human rights at work, our journey is far from over, but we know that the goal is more than worth the effort.

Rounding out my 2022 favorites list is The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World, by Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson. (I know what you’re thinking! I was similarly skeptical when my husband first suggested it.) It’s a beautifully written memoir about Svensson’s childhood and his efforts to catch the elusive eel. Svensson also explains the history of eels, drawing on Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, and Rachel Carson’s fascination with the eerie fish.

Any final thoughts as we get ready to ring in the new year?

I’m tremendously grateful for the support and leadership of our Board Chair, Mike Posner, as well as all of our board members. They continue to challenge us and guide our work. Most important, they trust the FLA team to advance the best interests of workers and our organization every day. I wish everyone in our FLA network a joyous new year celebration. We’ll see you in early January with our sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work!

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