Transparency in fashion supply chains

A young garment worker. The common activities for children at informal factories are: embroidery work, cutting/trimming, cutting thread, printing, making labels/tags/stickers, packaging, machine cleaning, weaving, hand stitching, dyeing, decorative work (such as adding sequins, decorative stones), button stitching, knitting, washing, and button coloring. Picture: Claudio Montesano Casillas.

A young garment worker. The common activities for children at informal factories are: embroidery work, cutting/trimming, cutting thread, printing, making labels/tags/stickers, packaging, machine cleaning, weaving, hand stitching, dyeing, decorative work (such as adding sequins, decorative stones), button stitching, knitting, washing, and button coloring. Picture: Claudio Montesano Casillas.


By BEL JACOBS

The fall of Rana Plaza in 2013 opened people’s eyes to the truth behind the fast fashion industry: the cheap clothes were being made, almost literally, on the backs of human rights violations and environmental degradations. If the 1992 Rio Earth Summit alerted the world to pressing environmental and development problems, Rana Plaza hammered it home with a vengeance. 

That would not have been possible without social media. Hearing about 1,134 people losing their lives in an illegal factory making cheap clothes for Western high streets is one thing; the harrowingly human stories that emerged from Rana Plaza - and that spread round the world like wildfire via social media - were another. "{Before Rana Plaza] many incidents [had taken place] in fashion supply chains in which people lost lives [but] all those tragedies become small stories in various media outlets; some were suppressed in the absence of freedom of the press in various countries,” reflects sustainability expert Vivek Singh. “Social media has given people a voice to bring to light to incidents that were hidden earlier and to spread a message to a larger audience. Even further, it’s given rise to a new habit where consumers can demand a product which not only fulfils their need but also adhere to basic human rights,” he continues. 

“As a term, sustainability is so intrinsically linked to supply chains; to design development, raw materials selection, manufacturer compliance/environmental impact, packaging and logistics,” says Flora Davidson, co-founder of Supplycompass, the design-to-delivery sourcing platform that aims to simplify and humanise the production process for brands and manufacturers. “After years of being an after-thought, not considered commercially viable by some, it’s exciting to see the industry reach a tipping point. 

“Everyone - consumers, brands and policy makers - are suddenly aligned in their agendas and, for the first time, are working together to drive change. I believe in the next decade, sustainability will sit at the heart of - and impact - every decision made for fashion brands, from design through to delivery.” But what exactly makes an effective and a transparent supply chain? Singh and Davidson, as well as Jodie Muter-Hamilton, host and producer of Black Neon Digital, an editorial platform and podcast series, and Subindu Garkhel, cotton and textiles expert at the Fairtrade Foundation, give their thoughts.

A female garment worker stands amidst children clothes. Due to a lack of child care facilities most young children spend their time with their mother at the workplace. Picture: Claudio Montesano Casillas.

A female garment worker stands amidst children clothes. Due to a lack of child care facilities most young children spend their time with their mother at the workplace. Picture: Claudio Montesano Casillas.

Flora: Before rethinking and rebuilding more efficient and responsible supply chains, brands must first truly understand their complexity. They then need internal alignment, that is, for every single employee to be on board with the new strategy. [Supply chain thinking] can’t sit in silo with the sustainability team. Teams need to be open to new ways of doing things and most of all, be flexible throughout the design development and decision-making production process. Brands should then make sure they have solid, trusted relationships with all their supply chain partners and be ready to look ahead and build long-term plans.

From that point, the real secret sauce is collaboration; brands need to start seeing their manufacturers as strategic partners. And there are particular challenges when building global supply chains. The common issues we have observed stem from different working cultures and a lack of visibility and control. For us, the key to overcoming these challenges is the digitisation and platform-isation of supply chains, and better standardisation of working practices. We live in a digital age yet most of the existing sourcing methods were created pre-internet. Systems and processes need to be totally rethought for the brands of the future.

Subindu: Brands need to invest in long term relationship and in working together to find solutions to existing problems - rather than constantly changing supply chains for a few cents every season [which is what often happens]. Outsourcing does make our products cheaper, mainly because labour is cheaper, but it also brings with it the risk of poorer national laws and their even poorer implementation. And this could result in outsourcing [not only labour] but pollution and human rights risks as well.

Vivek: The key to building an efficient and responsible supply chain? Definitely stakeholder collaboration - and data sharing. An industrywide partnership is taking place in the apparel sector, but data is missing from all those collaborations. Until data on projects, activities, compliance, and others is shared, it would be challenging to create genuinely responsible supply chains. The absence of critical data sharing creates a big question mark on any transparency initiative. It’s worth noting that there is - or should be - nothing called the “Sustainable Fashion Industry.” Some people are trying to create an industry within an industry by making it is exclusive. [But ] sustainability is all about inclusiveness .

Landscape behind the informal garment factories at Keraniganj in Dhaka. This district host hundreds informal factories. Picture: Claudio Montesano Casillas.

Landscape behind the informal garment factories at Keraniganj in Dhaka. This district host hundreds informal factories. Picture: Claudio Montesano Casillas.

Jodi: The fast fashion industry has grown so large that we don’t have actually have control or visibility of factories and I think that the scale is broken, blown up, bust. So we need to bring all those fragments back into a centralised place and the way to do that is by having visibility and control. Technology can help create that visibility and it can help order things so we look to tech for efficient in processes and systems and order in processing. But tech is only as good as what you put into it. 

Education is key - and quality of information. There are so many different ways a brand can prove it’s transparent and get a certification or a ‘tick’ but, as consumer swe still don’t really understand [what they mean]. We still don’t have a clear way of knowing what’s good and what’s bad. I hope that, in the future technology, can play a role in answering those questions because, when we think about the general public, you shouldn’t have to be an expert to decipher what you’re buying.