Wool Over Our Eyes: How a Fragmented Fashion Supply Chain Hides Global Social Issues

Hand sewing a material on a machine.

From child-filled sweatshops in China and slave labor in Uzbekistan to hazardous working conditions in India and beyond, the fashion industry has had a long, scandalous history with problematic production and supply chain practices. While the global garment production community isn’t as bad as it used to be, there are still many social and supply issues that need to be addressed by fashion companies.

Through the Lens of a Disaster: The Real Effect of Poor Supply Chain Practices

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which was home to several clothing factories, collapsed, killing over 1,100 people and injuring approximately 2,500. Hundreds of the survivors were left with permanent disabilities. During the day before, cracks had appeared throughout the building. Despite their apprehensions, workers were instructed to go to work as normal.

This tragic incident shook the fashion industry to the core, for it revealed many hard truths about working conditions in garment producing countries. This catastrophe would have been prevented had it not been for numerous construction and safety compliance violations, shoddy inspection practices, and a disregard for worker safety.

As the dust from the crumbled building began to settle, accusatory fingers were pointed. Considering the magnitude of the disaster, as well as its preventability, the blame was extensive and accountability could be pinned at multiple levels:

  • At the building owners, for insisting that the garment workers had nothing to worry about and instructing them to keep working in the building.
  • At the engineer, who illegally designed and built additional floors to the building that were against the original permit.
  • At the government, for not investigating the building when it was reported to be unsafe.
  • At the consumer culture at large, for participating in an endless cycle of new fashion trends, subsequently putting pressure on garment workers to put their own safety at risk in the name of supply and demand.
  • At the fashion companies, for not adhering to a sense of corporate responsibility to make sure that their garment factories were operating with the safety and wellbeing of the workers at the forefront.

Sadly, the situation in Bangladesh is not unique – unsafe work conditions, poor wages, and even slave labor continue to exist in many factories. It was reported that fashion companies around the world weren’t even aware that their garments were manufactured by one of the Rana Plaza factories; It wasn’t until people rummaged through the rubble looking for clothing labels that the brands were discovered.

These problems stem from a global supply chain that is enormous, complex, and extremely fragmented. Historically, many fashion companies haven’t deeply explored every tier of their supply chain, and as such either turned a blind eye to vague, distant problems or were completely unaware altogether.

However, things are changing as many fashion leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about their culpability in these issues.

Making a Fashion Statement: Setting Actionable Standards for Fashion Supply Chains

During the past decade, a number of consultancy firms, non-profits, coalitions, and other organizations dedicated to achieving sustainability within the fashion and textile industries have emerged into the market. These companies have collectively worked toward establishing fashion sustainability initiatives, definitions, and standards, while also developing actionable advice to empower leaders in the fashion industry.

Global Fashion Agenda, a non-profit founded in 2016, is one such organization that is committed to affecting meaningful change in the fashion industry by establishing universal standards, facilitating the sharing of information and solutions between leaders and stakeholders, developing panoramic insights into sustainability and supply chain, and inspiring members of the fashion industry to take action.

In 2018, they released a CEO Agenda to help fashion companies remodel their supply chain practices, which advised business leaders and decision makers to focus on traceability and pay meticulous attention to their first and second tier suppliers, especially scrutinizing each suppliers’ environmental impacts and labor ethics. Companies looking to go above and beyond were encouraged to apply equally strenuous audits on their third and fourth tier suppliers as well.

The report highlighted that, by investigating and thoroughly tracking things like energy consumption, toxic wastage, and labor conditions, fashion companies can use this information to identify key problem areas in their supply chain and create tailored strategies to address them.

Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve: The Importance of Transparency

Global Fashion Agenda and other similar organizations have stressed the importance of transparency; In its CEO report, Global Fashion Agenda advised companies to publicly disclose information about their suppliers.

Fashion Revolution, a collective of “designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers, and fashion lovers,” publishes an annual report called the “Fashion Transparency Index”. This report defines the parameters for best transparency practices and then grades the largest global fashion companies based on their level of transparency. They also launched the #IMadeYourClothes campaign in order to increase garment worker visibility.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes, Some Just Have Great Supply Chain Practices

Popular fashion retailer H&M is often listed as one of the top echelons of transparency in the Fashion Transparency Index. Not only do they describe their efforts in explicit detail on their easily accessible website, they also publish a list and map of their suppliers. By devoting their attention to all levels of their supply chain and publicizing their efforts, the company has achieved an exemplary production model for other companies to aspire to replicate.

Because they don’t own any factories, H&M works with independent suppliers all over the world, often from developing nations. They only enter working relationships with partners that share their vision and are open to improving their practices as needed. These partners must adhere to a set of guidelines, most of which centers around fair livable wages, usage of non-hazardous chemicals in production, and reducing their carbon footprint.

And all of this is accomplished without raising their affordable retail prices, which H&M attributes to “being cost conscious, having no middlemen, very efficient logistics and running our own stores.”

This article is Part Two of a three-part investigative series. In Part Three, publishing tomorrow on Insights, we will examine the role recycling plays in the fashion industry.

To read Part One of this series, click here


Image Credit: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock.com

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