Supply chain strategy | Opinion

How to drive effective action on sustainable fashion

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The apparel sector would benefit from a more forensic approach to the clear human rights and environmental challenges in its supply chains, and developing the collaborative solutions necessary to address them, argues Peter Stanbury

The apparel sector has acknowledged a need to do better in removing abuses from its supply chain. Last year’s survey by McKinsey of chief procurement officers from 64 apparel brands found that “apparel executives increasingly believe that sustainable sourcing at scale is a must-have for their companies and for the industry”. 

Certainly, despite decades of effort, the apparel sector continues to be dogged by reports of labour abuses and environmental damage. 

The US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee recently commissioned a report into the apparel sector in Bangladesh. The report found that: “Labour rights have declined precipitously in recent years as union organisers contend with pressure on freedoms to associate, organise, and demonstrate. Worse, workers are being abused – verbally, physically, and sexually.” 

The sector also remains under scrutiny for its environmental impact: as a March 2020 report by the BBC found, “fashion accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions”. 

No easy fixes 

It appears that these challenges continue to exist for two key reasons. 

First is the importance of context. A key challenge in addressing abuses in apparel supply chains lies in the fact that, in many cases, straightforward technocratic “fixes” do not work. 

This is because the root causes of many issues lie in wider social and political structures of the countries where manufacturing takes place. This has been apparent even since the early days of sustainable supply chain management, when sports brands came under fire from NGOs and others because footballs were hand-stitched by child labour in Pakistan.

However, as an analysis by the Clean Clothes Campaign demonstrated, the 7,000 children working in the industry did so to provide basics such as food, clothing and shelter for their families – on average, the wages of children stitching footballs provided nearly a quarter of household incomes. Removing children from the supply chains would therefore have resulted in great hardship to large numbers of families. 

Sourcing at scale

Second is the need for collaboration. The effort to deliver on the promise of sustainable sourcing at scale will have to extend far beyond individual companies. As the McKinsey report concluded: “Apparel brands and retailers will need to build true collaboration with suppliers, encompassing real co-investment and long-term planning along with robust measurement and management of performance.”

Yet, as things stand at present, this sort of collaboration is not happening. In June 2020, Draper magazine reported on a survey which found that almost half (46%) of retail sourcing bosses said it was highly unlikely that their organisation would co-invest in suppliers to secure future capacity, compared with 17% who found it somewhat or highly likely. Vogue magazine has suggested that this lack of collaboration persists because “the fashion industry is built on secrecy, elitism, closed doors and unavailability”. 

Insight and collaboration  

There is a clear need to move the debate forward, to share lessons learned, to dig more deeply into contextual factors, and to generate better thinking about what works. 

The challenge facing those seeking to build durable manufacturing supply chains is mirrored by that facing those trying to build sustainable agricultural supply chains. Despite huge efforts over many years, significant challenges – including poor rates of pay, environmental damage and child labour – still persist in the supply chains of commodities such as cocoa, palm and coffee. 

At present, insights into developing durable supply chains exist in silos, with different companies having different pieces of the jigsaw. Perhaps what is needed is bringing the silos together so that companies, and others, can share their knowledge about what works, what does not and what issues remain unclear and unknown.

Post pandemic resilience

We also need new insight and analysis about what post Covid-19 looks like. What is noteworthy about current discussions about building durable supply chains is that insights into a number of significant issues are almost entirely lacking. 

For example, we know little about the societal dynamics of communities in which supply chains exist, and rarely are senior figures from host governments and their domestic institutions engaged in what companies are doing. We need to consider the politics of real change. 

To address these gaps, insight is necessary from a number of fields:

•       Political science – to provide insights into issues such as how governmental structures in host countries operate.

•       Development economics – to build on existing knowledge about how economic development happens in locations where apparel manufacturing exists.

•       Ethnography – to help understand issues how communities operate, and how to effect lasting change within long-established social structures.

Such expertise, working in collaboration, can inform concrete actions on the ground and derive the specific recommendations necessary for activity in key geographies where apparel supply chains operate. Hard work is required, of course, but there are clear benefits for the long-term sustainability of the sector if these issues are addressed.    

Dr Peter Stanbury is principal of Frontier Practice and an Innovation Forum senior associate. 

Innovation Forum has recently established an action-research project to tackle the challenges of developing smallholder farmer resilience. We plan now to launch a sister research project aimed at improving environmental sustainability in apparel manufacturing supply chains, with an emphasis on what low carbon fashion will look like by 2030. 

For more information or to get involved please contact Innovation Forum head of partnerships Anita Thomson at: [email protected]

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