The fashion industry can help to build resilience and well-being into supply chain communities, as part of a holistic approach to create positive impact.
The problem with the global supply chain
The modern supply chain is vast, hugely complex and notoriously opaque. The lack of transparency hides harmful practises that affect the environment, workers and society. In the 90s production was off-shored in pursuit of cheaper labour markets in the Global South. I was a buyer for Topshop during this time and we moved much of our production to the Far East, largely abandoning UK manufacturing. Profit was the main driver, chasing ever-cheaper cost prices and shorter lead-times to meet demand for fast fashion. These business models still support much of retail today and do not account for their impact on people and the environment. Mass production and a throw-away culture has pushed our natural resources to their limit, and driven millions of people into poverty through labour abuses. It is time to take responsibility and plan for a sustainable future focused on preserving the environment, and integrating morals norms, fairness and respect.
Pesticide use in Cotton Farming
What makes communities vulnerable?
The least transparent and most distant stage of the supply chain is where raw materials are grown, picked and sorted for textile fibre production. Many brands cannot trace back this far and thus cannot identify the human exploitation that occurs. Recent UN reports from Xinjiang in China uncovered forced labour and human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in cotton production which China denies, and underlines the social disruption within cotton farming. Cotton needs a lot of irrigation and growing demand is diverting fresh water supply from people who already live within water-scarce regions. The Better Cotton Initiative BCI and Textile Exchange work with farmers and brands to transition to sustainable practises such as organic farming, which improves prosperity and income security.
The dying and processing of textiles is chemically intensive. Widespread use of hazardous substances with no filtration in place causes wide-spread water pollution which adversely affects human health. Whole communities who live and work closely to textile facilities are suffering the long-term consequences of irresponsible production, accounting for 20% of global water pollution according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.
The manufacturing of clothes; cutting, sewing and assembly is often the only stage that brands have a direct connection with. The final cost price is paid to the manufacturer and includes the raw materials, textile production and garment making. This puts the majority of risk on the tier 4 supplier to manage up-stream activity - instead of brands sharing knowledge and responsibility at every stage in a true partnership sense.
Rana Plaza tragedy, 2013 Dhaka Bangladesh
#PayUp activists, Awaj Foundation, Bangledesh
Fashion Revolution #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign
The UN Global Goals
The Rise of Activism
Lack of investment in garment manufacturing and providing safe working conditions was highlighted after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 where 1134 people died. Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers founded Fashion Revolution in response, now a global voice in campaigning for supply chain workers and transparency. It is important to know that some factory owners accept orders that barely break even, because they need the work and are hammered on price by big brands leaving no margin for factory improvements. Wages fall way short of a ‘living wage’ that would allow workers to live with dignity and provide for their families. Instead, millions of people, mostly women suffer physically, socially and economically from producing our fashion. Buyers do not appreciate the consequences of delaying an order, making a late design change or cancelling.
The pandemic exposed the disastrous consequences of millions of dollars of cancelled orders that were made and ready to ship. Garment workers were left with no pay, no work and no rights and are going hungry still. The #PayUp campaign founded by Remake has been effective in bringing pressure on brands to settle-up and is another encouraging sign that activism works. Change is coming. Through activism and social media, consumers are increasingly aware of the issues and expect more transparency from brands. Other campaigns such as Labour Behind the Label and the Clean Clothes Campaign have joined the plight of garment workers by exposing human exploitation and pushing hard for engagement with unions that aid job security.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a global framework for businesses, governments and society at large to create a better world by 2030. Success depends on bringing an end to poverty, fighting inequality and tackling climate change. Weak sustainability keeps these issues on a superficial level and manifests as greenwashing, accepting the environmental and social fall-out whilst continuing to pay shareholders. There is no future for this approach. Alignment with these goals can help to structure sustainable strategy and make fashion a force for good!
How can we embed social fairness into the modern supply chain?
Collaboration, cooperation and partnership forms the backbone of a strong social structure, both up-stream and down-stream. Critically brands must build strong long-term relationships where voices from each tier of the supply chain are represented, and give them the opportunity to lead and to manage. Sharing understanding, knowledge and goals can help to build trust and will facilitate progress in social development at the very least – to see that human welfare is addressed in the form of safe working conditions, identifying vulnerable workers and paying living wages. Regulation and compliance are key. Creating a platform for managing risk, is also an opportunity to improve the quality of life and long-term prosperity of supply-chain communities. Investment in people, technology and innovation, up-skilling and provision for healthcare and education can build a strong and loyal culture. If more brands were to own a stake in the production – in sharing that risk they have a vested interest in the success. We are considering this at Rplanet where we already enjoy direct engagement with all of our supply chain partners for materials, and wish to support UK manufacturing by building a production team that will harness skills and craftsmanship here at home from student level, to experienced machinists and also those wishing to up-skill or retrain.
Examples of strong Social Responsibility
The Fair Trade foundation empowers farmers and workers to build long-term sustainable livelihoods for their families and communities. They are guaranteed a minimum wage with premiums to invest in the community. Fair Trade is owned by the producers; on the ground representation across three continents that enables them to tackle root causes of inequality and poverty, strongly linked to diminished climate resilience. They understand why half the land used to produce coffee will not be suitable by 2050. UK brand People Tree founded by Safia Minney is a pioneer of Fair Trade working to the highest FT standards to support their producers including organic cotton farming and the development of low-impact dyes.
Sustainable brand People Tree and Fair Trade
Bethany Williams, The Magpie project
Bethany Williams, The Magpie project
Bethany Williams is a UK luxury brand transforming waste into contemporary clothing, created in collaboration with social enterprises that she wants to help, such as The Magpie Project that helps immigrant mothers and children under five who have no access to benefits or healthcare, and the San Patrignano rehabilitation project. The people inspire her collections. She uses fashion as a force for change and is a hands-on volunteer herself, committed to the support of social and environmental change. Bottletop a UK brand that empowers people through sustainable design and creative culture. Their signature handbags are made from upcycled metal ring pulls at their atelier in Brazil. They run a foundation alongside that supports grass roots health, education and skills training to give young people with lower self-esteem, the confidence to achieve their full potential. These are just a few examples of brands investing in people.
Countries where the majority of clothing is manufactured are among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change. There is a disproportionate impact on low-income communities that are the least culpable. The pandemic has exposed a reactive and somewhat reluctant response from brands to do the right thing. We cannot continue to make decisions without hearing from those who are directly affected by them. We must seek to re-balance with a proactive, holistic and purposeful strategy to identify social and environmental initiatives that support everyone.