Turning garment supply chains inside out to achieve sustainable change

  • Written by Peter Needle
  • Published on 14 June 2018
  • Our Voice

We take a look back at the changes following the Rana Plaza Disaster.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, a date now recognised as Fashion Revolution Day, when fashion consumers will be asked to be curious, turn their clothes inside out, and ask who stitched the seams. Public and media attention is also refocusing on the high street fashion retailers who sourced garments from the crumbling factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. We are now all too aware of the terrible cost of doing nothing - but how can the fashion industry move on to achieve long-term improvement and increase standards of corporate social responsibility?

The Guardian's new 'web documentary' about Rana Plaza, entitled The Shirt on Your Back, is in equal measures shocking, sad and infuriating. Following the tragic story of Mahmuda, a young garment worker and now single mother and widow, it also explores the broader context of Bangladesh’s economic status and the garment production industry, setting the scene for the tragic and inevitable conclusion.

There is no doubt that poor business practices contribute to the exploitation of many people around the world. However, most fashion retailers do not harbour malicious intent – rather, a woeful lack of supply chain management strategies has allowed the true conditions of global garment production industries to remain a mystery – until now.

What to Do

As we’ve argued previously, it’s not as simple as abandoning Bangladesh. While developed countries may benefit hugely from cheap labour, this impoverished Asian nation has also strengthened itself as a booming production hub, and Dhaka's rapid urbanisation is fuelled by citizens desperate to escape from rural poverty.

The Bangladeshi garment industry experienced a major boom following the lifting of global restrictions on garment production roughly a decade ago. The number of employed workers rapidly doubled from two million in 2004 to four million in 2013, and factories were thrown up with little planning or regulation in place, in attempts to keep up with soaring demand. Many of these factories are therefore indisputably unaudited and unethical, but to boycott the industry entirely would also leave thousands upon thousands in abject poverty.

And while the situation in Bangladesh has been highlighted in the media, other garment producing countries cannot be forgotten – factory workers in Cambodia are currently suffering violent strikes and mass sickness fainting?, while concern grows over labour rights violations in Myanmar’s rapidly expanding garment industry. It’s clear that more sustainable long-term changes need to be brought about globally, and methods of supply chain management must be available in order to achieve this.

Consumers care, but lack clarity

No one would argue that unethical production industries shouldn’t be addressed. However, while certain high street retailers have been named and shamed, and the Rana Plaza tragedy has been widely condemned, members of the public can only make informed decisions in their shopping habits if they know who made their clothes.

Over recent years the garment industry has become globalised, complex and highly competitive. The constant cycle of fast fashion trends within an omni-channel retail world has led supply chains to operate at breakneck speed, sometimes risking supply chain transparency, but there is limited consumer awareness of the ethical costs involved.

Companies care, but lack control

Despite the widespread criticism of budget fashion retailers, it’s clear that companies do not set out to suffer factory collapses and worker deaths. Disasters such as Rana Plaza cause a tragic loss of life to the local community, but also represent a nightmare for retail supply chains, as they invite huge production delays, scathing public criticism and calls for financial compensation to those affected. In short, no one benefits.

The real challenge is achieving complete visibility across the garment supply chain. Aside from the actual stitching of garments, textiles are grown, dyed, spun and treated, while finished products are ironed, trimmed, labelled and packaged. Each production step is likely to take place in a different factory, with workers operating under varying production targets, wage brackets and health and safety legislation. Subcontracting and outsourcing is commonplace as manufacturers fight to meet demanding deadlines within budget, but this can mean the sacrifice of supply chain visibility.

Retailers need to be aware of their complete production line before they are able to make truly meaningful improvements. Production tracking technologies are a must, not a maybe. Systems such as Segura now exist to support manufacturers in managing their secondary supply chain, enforcing transparency on suppliers and subcontractors, and handing control back to fashion brands.

 

Originally published on 23/04/2014

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