Global Fashion’s Underbelly Is On Show This Season

by | May 19, 2020

On show this season are not the new summer trends, but the fashion industry’s nasty underbelly. We’re also seeing hints of what a post Covid-19 industry might look like: more transparent, kinder and more sustainable.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sent the global $2.5tn fashion industry into a crisis. The International Textiles Manufacturers Federation has found that current orders are down by over 40% and it expects turnover for 2020 to be down by 33% compared to 2019. Business of Fashion, and McKinsey & Company predict a large number of global fashion companies to go bankrupt in the next 12 to 18 months. Worse, as the Financial Times reports, many of the manufacturers who’ve gone unpaid have also been told that if they complain too loudly, they risk losing business when economies reopen.

All of which will have an enormous impact on an estimated 50 million garment workers.

Most of the world’s clothing production takes place in Asia where wages are low and working conditions often poor because factories find loopholes to avoid compliance with safety standards (when these exist). And because of the intensity of regional competition, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, for instance, finds it difficult to secure a living wage for workers. Nadia Shivakumar of Asia Floor Wage Alliance recently told Twyg that, “Brands offload costs of their global supply chains to supplier firms while at the same time demanding cheap products. Ultimately, this means that the actual burden falls on workers who are forced to live and work in unsafe and hazardous conditions.”

Now with the collapse of the consumer market, brands are cancelling orders which means factory owners are struggling to pay employees. The Financial Times reports that half of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers (most of whom are women) have lost their jobs, while The State of Fashion’s special Covid-19 report warns that, for workers in low-cost sourcing and fashion manufacturing hubs such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Honduras and Ethiopia, extended periods of unemployment will mean hunger and disease.

These cold facts can no longer be ignored by fashion brands and consumers. So, what is being done to address them? Over the past few weeks we’ve been encouraged by a number of actions. Three such actions are highlight here:

Transparency Index

Last month Fashion Revolution released its annual Transparency Index, a review of 250 of the biggest global fashion brands and retailers ranked according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies and impacts. The companies selected for the index have an annual turnover of more than $400 million.

At 73%, H&M received the top score. The sustainable outdoor brand, Patagonia scored 60%. South African brands, Foschini, Truworths, Woolworths, and Mr Price scored within the 11-20% range, which is below average.

Few brands publish data about their annual production volume, but Inditex (the parent company that owns Zara) reported producing more than 1.6 billion items last year.

The Coronavirus is showing why transparency is so important. Most brands don’t own their manufacturing and supplier facilities, which complicates the overseeing and management of working conditions as well as the environmental impact. With information, stakeholders can hold brands accountable for stopping and delaying payments and for cancelling orders, all of which passes the costs on to the most vulnerable workers in the supply chain.

Transparency builds trust in the brands and a lack of transparency can damage brands’ reputation. Fashion Revolution believes that “Without transparency we cannot see or protect vulnerable people and the living planet.”  Ben Vanpeperstraete, a human rights expert says, “Transparency in the post COVID-19 pandemic might very well become a strategy to rebuild the eroded trust in brands and retailers.”

#PayUp Petition

Remake, a community of millennial and Gen Z women who campaign to put an end to fast fashion, have launched a petition demanding brands to #PayUp. This is “a response to reports coming in from suppliers that brands had cancelled ‘in-production’ orders as a result of retail constriction following the outbreak of Coronavirus”. The organisation lists the companies that haven’t committed to paying for orders.

Since the petition was launched, 14 brands have agreed to pay up. This amounts to $7.5 billion. Only once companies commit to paying suppliers for orders that were cancelled or pauses up will their names be removed from the list. Among those still to commit are: Topshop, Primark, Gap, and Urban Outfitters.

In an interview with Remake’s Rebecca Blake Thompson, Nazma Akter from the Awaj Foundation says: “After the pandemic, work is my dream. We want fair prices and fair wages. The brands should be fair. We want a different world. We need hope and action. We don’t want charity, we want work. We want fair jobs. We made your clothes, but we didn’t get our full salary.”

An Open Letter to the Fashion Industry

Belgian designer Dries van Noten, along with a group or designers and retailers, wants the industry to realign its collections with real-time seasons and stop early sales. He told the New York Times: “When you try to explain how fashion works to people not in fashion, it’s impossible. Nobody can understand it.”

The group has written an open letter to the fashion industry calling for changes. Acknowledging that times are challenging, they say that we are presented with “an opportunity for a fundamental and welcome change that will simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable and ultimately align them more closely with customers’ needs.”

The changes they propose will increase sustainability throughout the supply chain and sales calendar through:

  • Less unnecessary product
  • Less waste in fabrics and inventory
  • Less travel
  • Making use of digital showrooms in addition to personal creative interactions
  • Review and adapt fashion shows

You can read the full text and add your name to the list of signatories here.

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