Nathan is a fashion consultant with more than ten years’ experience. Throughout his career he has worked with more than 40 fashion brands. Brands place their trust in him to set trends, convey the right message, and provide fashion advice. As a hobby, Nathan mentors university students giving them advice on trends and what he believes is the right way to do business.
Nathan is concerned that the fashion industry is not taking supply chain transparency seriously enough. Nathan has seen how children are forced to work in developing countries and the way poachers illegally hunt animals for their skins in Africa. His aim is to raise awareness and mentor his students so they become a better generation of designers.
What is the issue with supply chain transparency in Fashion?
Fashion supply chains are usually very long and complex. Unfortunately, many brands do not know where their clothes are made. The majority of brands do not own factories directly making it difficult to monitor and control working conditions throughout the supply chain. Marc Gunther states that “brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains”. Some brands may work with hundreds of factories, suppliers and subcontractors at any given time to manufacture their fashion collections. This is a common practice in the fashion industry. Due to countless subcontractors abuses become invisible as supply chains lengthen.
In one experiment Norway’s largest newspaper sent three Norwegian fashionistas to Cambodia to experience life of textile workers for a month. Whilst initially flippant, eventually these teenagers were shocked by what they saw: children as young as five were found in factories working without breaks, and the environment was dirty, small and unsafe. Tim Gunn, an American fashion consultant, states that ‘the industry isn’t stepping back to look at its work objectively when it comes to transparency, despite insistence to do so from consumers and industry experts.’ experts and consumers want to see transparency in the fashion industry but the industry is not planning to compromise. Fashion designers are focused on creating the newest and best designs while brands are focused on maximizing profits. Therefore, the fashion industry pays little attention to the way in which clothes are produced by the working poor in developing nations.
Nathan always tells his mentees that no matter how successful they become they have to be responsible and to know how their clothes are made. One day, one of his students, Lena came back with a leather sample which she thought was faux leather. Nathan was shocked by what appeared in front of him and asked Lena to go back to from where she got the leather sample and ask about its origin. The whole point of the project was to obtain materials that were made in an ethical way. After asking her source, Lena found out the material was seal suede.
The importance of supply chain transparency
The fashion industry is increasingly aware of transparency issues; however, many have not taken action to be fully transparent. Some designers, retailers and brands offer full supply chain transparency, from the minute they receive their material to the distribution of the finished products, but they remain a niche market. Gunn says that ‘designers and brands have a responsibility to provide information to consumers’ outlining where their materials are sourced, who makes their clothes and under which working conditions.
Most labourers in developing nations face harsh living and working conditions due to fashion giants prioritizing profit over the workforce’s wellbeing. According to Fashion Revolution, having full supply chain transparency creates opportunities for brands. Collaborative actions between companies, NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) and unions can help build a safer fashion industry and improve the living and working conditions of labourers.
Nathan is distressed that there are many examples of slavery, child labour and unethical practices throughout fashion supply chains. He contacted a couple of fashion brands that he worked with in the past to discuss supply chain transparency. Some companies declined to talk to him, others welcomed him. One company confessed they do not know every sub-contractor and inevitably do not know where their clothes are made but are willing to find out. Nathan knows that supply chains can be very complex, but turning a blind eye to abuses is not the right answer.
What can be done to ensure companies become more transparent in their supply chains?
Increasing supply chain transparency alone will not bring the much needed reforms in how brands do business. According to Annie Kelly companies are not obligated to investigate any type of slavery in their supply chains. Governments should hold companies legally accountable when they find human rights abuse in their supply chains. British lawmakers have recently pressured businesses to voluntarily address labour abuses in global production networks. Last year, the UK government passed the Modern Slavery Act, which focuses on the prevention of modern slavery and protection of victims. The new law makes companies accountable for slavery and labour abuses that could occur throughout their supply chain. The idea is to ensure no slavery is linked to any British products and to show consumers, and investors that companies are taking a proactive attitude. Kelly explains that companies that have an annual net profit of £36m or more, ‘will have to produce and publish an annual slavery and trafficking statement in a “prominent” place on its website every year’. If businesses fail to publish the annual statement they could end up in court having to pay an unlimited fine. However, there are no guidelines so a company could publish a public statement stating that they are not doing anything to eradicate slavery. This would fulfil their legal obligations so they can avoid any fines or consequences.
Full supply chain transparency can be difficult to achieve, especially for larger fashion retailers that are unable to map their suppliers. We feel the only way to understand the supply chain is to remove it and produce directly. That means running factories, which most producers are running away from due to cost and uncertainty, and not wanting to take responsibility for a workforce. We won’t shirk that responsibility.
About the Author
Valentina is passionate in expressing her voice through her writing, which she hopes will have a social impact. She grew up as a third culture kid that always fought for what is right and achieved a BA Hons. in International Business in order to understand the business world more clearly and leave a possible mark on society. Currently she is working for an ethical start-up company called Chanzez. Chanzez has been set up to provide people with chances whether they are people who design clothes, people who work to make clothes or people who want to be able to buy ethically produced clothes.