Toxic fashion supply chains – workers suffer from chemical hazards

Although garment factory conditions in Bangladesh have been well-publicised in recent months, poor ethics continue to plague the production industries that feed into European high street stores. High street retailers need to step up their supply chain strategies and closely monitor their global sourcing. Increasingly, production tracking systems represent a necessity in maintaining this control.

Bangladeshi Leather Industry Revealed as Unsafe

The Daily Mail revealed that around 25,000 people work for as little as £30 a month across 200 tanneries based in Hazaribagh, an area in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Collectively, they dump 22,000 litres of toxic waste into the Buriganga every day, poisoning Dhaka's main river and water supply with chemicals that include known carcinogen chromium, which can cause lung cancer, stomach ulcers and anaemia. Exposure to chromium can come from polluted air, soil, food, and water, and the chemical can easily become dispersed across wide areas of land.

These tanneries are breaking environmental laws, but the Bangladeshi government has not yet forced them to improve conditions. As a result, Hazaribagh ranks among the 30 most polluted places in the world, while the Buriganga represents one of the most polluted rivers on earth.

Leather produced in Bangladesh is used to make shoes and other goods sold in Europe and the US, but it is often difficult to link specific tanneries to specific Western retailers. UK footwear company Jones Bootmaker, owner of high street brand Clarks, is making changes to its supply chain strategies, setting up its own environmental-friendly tannery. However, this level of transparency on material sourcing is not commonly replicated across the fashion industry.

Health Concerns Closer to Home

According to research published by Greenpeace, several chemicals widely used in the textile industry for the production of childrenswear could in fact be potentially dangerous to the wearer. Well known fashion brands use chemicals which have been found to be toxic to reproductive development and hormone systems in mammals, and a recent UNEP and WHO report backed up concerns that the impacts of hormone disruptors can be particularly critical in growing children.

This means that supply chain management risks could potentially threaten the health of garment workers and garment-wearing young children alike, affecting individuals for the entire length the supply chain. Greenpeace launched a Detox Fashion Manifesto in protest against the use of toxic chemicals in the fashion industry, and has collected over 500,000 signatures. Nevertheless, while some brands have reportedly responded to this campaign, many others have so far remained silent on the issue.

What Can be Done?

The economic feasibility of supply chain strategies must be considered in light of legislative and consumer demand. To put it another way – if customers vote with their feet, or new laws are passed demanding that all textile manufacturers use non-toxic chemicals, manufacturers will have to afford it. And it is best to lead by example than be led by others.

China, the world's largest textile producing country, last year declared the nation’s textile industry as a "key industry for regulatory control." This concern shown by a developing country with major industrial strength sets a precedent for the rest of the world to follow.

As brands such as Clarks begin to react to concerns over the leather industry, others risk getting left behind by using outdated and disparaged supply chain strategies, potentially damaging their reputation. This competitive market dynamic will hopefully spur progress in finding and using safe alternatives, which will become more easily available and affordable as a result of this attention.

Purchasing and supply chain management

The best way to address such issues is through implementing strict control and visibility over entire fashion supply chains. This can involve a brand actively working with suppliers to improve conditions, or simply ensuring that all suppliers, including third party, are verified as adhering to certain standards.

Upstream players in the apparel supply chain include producers of fabric dyes and raw materials such as cotton and leather. Clever purchasing and supply chain management is vital to ensure that each and every supplier that contributes to a brand’s supply chain is operating according to ethical and environmental standards.

Segura can transform the degree of control that a retailer has in supply chain management, enabling you to do business on your terms. Segura production tracking systems were developed from within the industry, and ensure that every supplier or subcontractor is an approved one. The system also calculates all rebates due to you, removing another motivation for suppliers to subcontract at low prices, and effectively excluding non-ethically-run contractors from entering your supply chain.

This enforces transparency, accountability and ethical compliance on all suppliers, and also gives you the ability to eliminate delayed orders, uncompetitive relationships and substandard products. The conclusion? Better products reaching your stores on time, at a controlled cost, and with no nasty surprises.

Originally published 27/02/2014

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