How times of crises can be a wakeup call for change

Do you know how your jeans were made? Which factories they were produced in? What materials were they made from and how they were sourced? No?

Well, many retailers selling those jeans (or other garments) don’t know either.

In the wake of a crisis like COVID-19 fashion retailers are becoming aware of the flaws in their supply chains. This includes their lack of knowledge across various parts of their chain of production.

Let’s run through the production of a pair of jeans to find out why this is an issue:

  1. Cotton is harvested from a field (usually with the use of special machines)
  2. Bales of cotton get processed and spun into yarn in a factory
  3. The yarn is dyed (depending on the colour of jeans), and threads are woven into denim fabric.
  4. The fabric gets cut, assembled and sewed. For a typical pair of jeans, 15 pieces of cloth are sewn together.
  5. Jeans are pressed, embroidered and labeled, before they get washed to create that faded jeans look we all love.
  6. The completed pair of jeans are done and get sent to warehouses and delivery centres, from where they end up in stores.
Picture: Kailey Sniffin

Within all the steps in the production of jeans, many things can go wrong from an ethical and sustainable perspective.

For fast fashion brands, for example, the production and sale doesn’t happen in the same country. Materials get sourced in one country and production happens in another. Until that pair of jeans reaches the store, it has travelled many kilometers, often across the whole world.

Another issue is that many popular fast fashion brands such as H&M and Zara often lose track of what happens across their supply chain.

They are able to sell their clothing so cheaply because they are producing a large quantity of products in a short amount of time. To make management of their large volumes of production easier, these brands use ‘subcontractors’. This means that they subcontract portions of large orders to other firms or rely on purchasing agents to place orders with other firms.

However that causes them to have little insight or control across their supply chain – including worker’s health and safety, or the quality of materials.

Even if they try to make more ethical or sustainable choices, they are hindered because influencing their suppliers is a long and complicated process.

A crisis that drew large public awareness to issues like this, was the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013. Even though the 8-story commercial building had cracks in the ceiling the day before the collapse, garment workers were still ordered to return to work. When the factory broke down it killed 1134 people and injured more than 2500, many of them young women. It is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history.

After this crisis brands started paying more attention to their supply chains, in response to consumer’s urgent demands for more transparency. Initiatives like Fashion Revolution Week were born, which focus on spreading awareness about the reality of the fast fashion industry. They inspire consumers to ask their favourite brands to give them honest answers about the origins of their clothing with campaigns like #whomademyclothes and #whatsinmyclothes.

Despite advancements in the industry since 2013, supply chains are still not how they should be.

This is why the fast fashion industry was disrupted by another crisis: COVID-19.

Weaknesses in their supply chains caused companies great difficulties in handling this crisis:

Their supply chains are too rigid and set up in a way that gives brands little flexibility to switch to alternative suppliers with different ordering volumes during a crisis.

Processes happen manually, meaning companies have to go through many steps to change something about their supply chains

Lack of transparency – many companies still have no idea about who some of their suppliers are and what conditions workers are exposed to.

Similarly to the Rana Factory collapse, COVID-19 serves as a wake up call for the fashion industry.

Consumers are part of this wake up call as they are demanding greater transparency more than ever about how their clothes are made.

Large companies need to realise that they need to take control of their supply chains. This will not only allow them to navigate future crises, but also enable them to become more ethical and sustainable companies.

Many things need to change.

  • Fashion brands should utilise technology such as AI or blockchain to learn more about their supply chains. Companies like Sundar and Sourcemap are making this possible.

  • Retailers should work with better suppliers whose workers are paid enough and are working in safety.

  • Sustainable materials should be used in the production of our clothing.

  • Production needs to become more circular – including that we reuse materials instead of throwing out all waste.

  • Companies should produce ‘slower’, and higher quality fashion. Less trends, more focus on garments that are timeless.

An amazing example of this is the company Armed Angels. They are a sustainable and ethical clothing brand who highlight their fair fashion practices, and are transparent about the materials they are using. They are also working with the Fair Wear Foundation which supports their suppliers in enabling fair working conditions for all of their employees.

Of course it’s not possible for all companies to adopt these sort of ethical practices overnight. And a crisis like COVID-19 won’t fix everything. But it can be a catalyst for change to occur faster.

If companies and consumers both become more aware of their actions, and make better choices as a result, we can get there step by step.

By Lena Schrum