You Are What You Wear

Resetting the Fashion Supply Chain

A factory burns down in Bangladesh. Over
100 workers die. The finger pointing at high-profile fashion brands begins. Bowing their heads in shame, they apologize for not knowing about the dangerous conditions, pledge to
 pay the victims and their families several months of wages, and get a proverbial pat on the
back for righting their wrongs. The media cycle moves on. The stories disappear from the papers. Our outrage dissipates.

A few months later, a factory in Bangladesh collapses. Over 1,000 workers die. Repeat.

Inevitably, the question of how often we can repeat this arises. Yes, some companies take steps towards improving conditions, such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, where participants include Adidas, H&M, and Joe Fresh’s parent company, Loblaw. But the faults in the system remain. For one, not everyone is on board
 with signing these initiatives; most North American retailers didn’t.

In an attempt at resolution, new Western designers are returning
 to their roots. They pride themselves on sourcing and manufacturing in their home countries. The increase in cost is justified by their appeal
to the socially conscious. Should the increase in demand and consumer acceptance of higher prices continue, however, the supply chain will struggle to meet the demand on the home front. These designers will find that their suppliers often don’t have the resources for increasing orders, so inevitably, they begin to look for sources outside the fence. And we’re back to where we started.

To a degree, vertical integration holds some answers. Whatever the feelings on American Apparel’s CEO may be, their adoption of this model allows them to be positioned as sustainable and caring. According to their website, production is entirely in-house, yielding “one million garments each week at [their] Sweatshop-Free factory in Downtown Los Angeles.”

The reality, however, is that most designers can’t afford vertical integration. And countries like Bangladesh need the business: The retail manufacturing industry accounted for 12% of Bangladeshi GDP in 2010, and employs approximately four million people. Take that away, and their economy will feel it. Despite consumers’ reactive boycotts and pledges to shop local, and brands taking a made-in-America stance, the fact remains that countries like Bangladesh rely on this source
of income – and consumers want affordable clothes. You can have your sustainable brands, but they can’t become the sole source of apparel. And let’s be honest: as long as consumers want to buy and buy a lot, fast fashion isn’t going anywhere.

On the other hand, a small shift in consumer thinking could make a big difference. Instead of buying a lot for very little, we could buy a little bit less and spend a little bit more, knowing that the extra capital goes
 to ensuring safe working environments and fair wages. This movement is already prevalent in the fashion industry, where consumers are encouraged to buy quality over quantity. Consumer spending trends support this: According to a 2014 Deloitte report,
 the top 75 luxury brands saw annual growths of 12.6% in 2012, compared to a growth of 5.1% of the world’s top 250 consumer products companies. Number one on the list? Luxury conglomerate LVMH, which includes brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Marc Jacobs.

What most people would want to see, however, is transparency.
 If you’re spending more, you want assurance that the extra money isn’t lining the pockets of high-level executives. You want to know that workers are receiving fair wages and conditions are actually being improved. To achieve this, companies need to be more involved in
the supply process and work closely with factory owners.

Technology can do all it can to revolutionize methods and process, but without responsibility and initiative from all sides – the consumer, the manufacturer, the designer – little will change. Francesca Romana Rinaldi, Professor of Business Strategy in Creative Industries and Fashion Management at Bocconi University in Milan, suggests a multi-stakeholder approach could be the answer. “Companies need to integrate ethical value and aesthetics in the value chain. They must rethink the traditional business models, managers need to change their mindsets, universities need to train managers and designers on responsibility, consumers need to be more aware of the fact that their decision counts a lot.” It’s all too easy to selfishly justify our purchases as something we deserve, but they need to be understood in a cyclic context.

It isn’t just about feeling good about what you’re buying, either: A supply chain that considers and compensates justly will run more smoothly. You get what you pay for. When asked how the supply chain can realistically reset, Sarah Ahmed, founder of award-winning denim label DL 1961, agrees that an all-encompassing revamp needs to happen: “[We] all need to become conscious of the entire supplier to consumer process and correct inefficiencies at every step. In addition, suppliers have a responsibility to have the latest machineries and maintenance [for product] that is not only superior, but eco-friendly as well.”

Indeed, increased transparency could be the pillar to the reset. After all, it’s not so much a reset of the supply chain itself – but how we relate to it, and our informed opinions can do far more to influence the decisions of corporations.

Photo: Forgemind ArchiMedia

the author

Esther Rogers

Esther is co-head of IC/ publishing at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.