THE ETHICAL ISSUES WITH COMPLEX FASHION SUPPLY CHAINS AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
Fashion supply chains are notoriously complex. Competition, changing consumer habits and rising costs all put pressure on retailers to reconfigure their supply chains in search of greater efficiencies and profit. Fashion is also global, and whilst this has offered opportunities and benefits to both UK business and global suppliers, with such sprawling activity comes added complexity.
A single garment sitting in your wardrobe may have been manufactured in Turkey, using Indian cotton and buttons from China. It may then have been shipped to the U.S. to be packaged before being posted to you in Europe. Retailers large and small take advantage of national expertise and affordable labour by sourcing their garment production from a variety of places. This can make great business sense so it is no surprise that many fashion designers and retailers shun UK garment manufacturers in favour of ready-to-wear manufacturers overseas. But with nations differing in the way they regulate the fashion manufacturing industry, guaranteeing transparency throughout the supply chain is a hard task.
Ethical issues with complex fashion supply chains are many. Public awareness of these issues really picked up in the 1990s and particularly in the wake of key texts like Naomi Klein’s book No Logo. Suddenly consumers were learning about sweatshops and child labour, forcing brands to investigate and respond. Nike and Levi Strauss were two of the first to develop and publish codes of conduct for their own supply chains.
Pay and conditions
Key concerns in fashion supply chains are pay and conditions. In countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey and Malaysia, garment workers can easily be working 12-hour days, if not more, with seven-day weeks common in busy periods. The consumer desire for inexpensive fast fashion puts pressure on the whole supply chain, with those at the bottom feeling it most. What’s more, the minimum wage often falls short of the proposed living wage, leaving garment workers struggling to feed their families.
The subcontracting garment production is common in global supply chains. When a factory is given a last-minute order by a major retailer, they may feel little choice but to subcontract the work to smaller suppliers in order to meet the deadline. The problem is that these subcontractors have, more often than not, failed to be vetted to the extent that the main supplier has; they may even be homeworkers. There are also cases of factories purposefully subcontracting jobs to homeworkers precisely because they are too dangerous to complete within the factory’s safety guidelines.
The textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. Waste dye effluent enters waterways and cotton production is the single greatest user of pesticides and fertilizers worldwide. Again, different nations have different rules to regulate such activity. As you would expect, garments that have travelled the world can also come with a hefty carbon footprint.
Avoiding the risks as a designer
The issues described above really just provide a broad stroke review. Circumstances clearly vary on a case-by-case basis but there are things you can consider as a garment designer searching for the best clothing manufacturers.
- Look for suppliers certified by an independent third party if sourcing from overseas, the Fair Labor Association is a good place to start.
- Source from UK garment manufacturers. This doesn’t come with a hard and fast ethical guarantee but overall the health and safety standards of garment factories in London are good, and you can visit them yourself to check.
- Manage your own production. A linear supply chain is the best way to ensure everything meets your standards, meaning you need your own factory or production unit. It’s near impossible for newly established brands to have the resources for this however, which is where small, friendly production units like us can help! contact us today and arrange a visit.
For more detailed advice on how to ensure your designs are being produced ethically, see another of our articles How to ensure your designs are being produced ethically.