As fashion businesses continue to try and figure out how they can change their path going forward, experts like Elizabeth L Cline, author of Overdressed and the Conscious Closet are hoping that the current pandemic forces the industry to protect its most vulnerable workers in their supply chain. It is a viewpoint that was supported by Global Policy Director and report author Sarah Ditty. She told the Standard, “Paying for orders already placed and paying for these orders on the agreed terms is the least that brands should be doing to support their suppliers and supply chain workers during this crisis.”
The global environmental movement, which took place on 22nd April 2020, picked up the uncomfortable conversation of how the fashion industry has been canceling orders and threatening to withhold payments. The dialogue sparked a reaction to protect the workers at the bottom of the fashion industry hierarchy. The trending topic spurred advocates like Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, to use this unexpected moment to expose the cracks in the fashion industry’s system. Also using her voice is Ellie Violet Bramley, a freelance journalist who covers culture, cities, and women’s issues who explained: “Supply chains are such delicately balanced systems; like dominos, if one goes down, it all goes down”.
Valuing Those in the Supply Chain
Considered to be the heart of the fashion industry, garment workers, who often come from the most marginalized communities, are being failed by the industry. Described as the backbone of many fashion businesses, we have been witnessing companies resorting to “force majeure” clauses in their contracts. It is a clause that is allowing them to shirk responsibility towards its global supply chain, they are not fully respecting the rights of their workers. Bloomberg reports that about 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh have had orders canceled due to the outbreak, amounting to $1.5 billion lost. “It is a unique moment because consumers are paying attention and reorienting our relationship with consumption. Governments and corporations are being called out, and garment workers are continuing to resist, as they always have,” revealed sustainable fashion advocate and journalist Aditi Mayer in a Guardian interview.
Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic for the industry to react to the broken system. It is a wakeup call that has seen hashtags like #PayUp trending. “The people who power supply chains – from retail, warehouse, to the factory floor – need to be treated as assets rather than cost centers,” argued Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake. Barenblat makes a valid point; it is imperative, now more than ever, that the fashion industry needs to come up with safety nets designed to protect people working across their fashion supply chain.
Right now, protection is coming from the consumers demanding sustainability, conscious consumption, and circularity. They are exercising their power to fight for those who are being treated as collateral damage and whose voice is not being heard. The result has been that big companies like Primark who have tried to turn a blind eye, are now paying owed monies totaling almost half a billion dollars to garment factories.
As the #PayUp campaign continues to gain momentum, I don’t think that now is the time to point the finger on who is to blame. Instead, it is the opportunity to try and fix the imbalance by halting the need to invisibilize the process of how our clothes are made. “Progress depends on our vantage point. Brands, consumers, and factory owners have made gains. But those gains aren’t flowing to everyone,” states Cline on her Instagram account. So what is the solution? How can we start to repair fashion’s supply chain?
Repairing A Broken System
Although some brands might be tempted to return to a broken system post- coronavirus rather than invest in innovation, it is not a solution that will fix the weaknesses that have been recently exposed in fashion’s supply chain. It is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the power imbalance that exists between fashion brands and those who manufacture their garments. By pioneering, businesses might be able to repair the fragile supply chain, so it benefits everyone in it. “Now is the time to reimagine new systems– beyond these systems that we are critiquing, let’s propose alternatives,” Mayer told the Guardian.
To be future-ready fashion’s supply chains need to become more sustainable. It is a no brainer, to evolve, we need to reduce the volume of production that goes to waste, anything less is putting a band-aid an open wound. If you want to refashion your business, you could begin with modifying your supply chain to the localized, on-demand paradigm. Other solutions that have been mentioned by various experts include data sharing, trusted networks, and multi-stakeholder input to legislation.
On securing and rebuilding a more resilient supply chain Jan de Ruyter, a freelance lecturer on supply chain management topics said: “Supply chains will take time to at first react to the Covid-19 crisis, then they will overreact before calmness and purpose set in.” He continues: “There needs to be a focus on customer demand, not hysterical sales. It will require a massive exchange of information, something most retailers have resisted for a long time.” All in all, Ruyter believes that the current situation offers “us an opportunity to apply some critical thinking.” Therefore, it makes sense that the fashion industry should now think about how they can focus on improving opportunities that could make the transition easier.
The Start of A Post-Coronavirus Future
One of the leaders behind the paradigm shift in the fashion supply chain Lisa Morales-Hellebo once told me, “Supply chains are like oxygen — you don’t notice it until it’s not there.” It was a statement that made me realize that in times like these, we need to focus on what we have learned like the severe power imbalances that exist within the fashion supply chain. To have a healthier supply chain we need to be accountable. We need to commit to being responsible across our entire manufacturing supply chain. We need to recognize that those in the frontlines do not benefit from a system that puts profit over people. Lastly, to quote pragmatic futurist Lisa Lang, we need to realize that “purpose is the new commodity.”