Critical nuances for effectively advocating change in the fashion industry.

Want to learn more? This animated video covers many of the points in this article in more detail.

1. “We need more accurate forecasts.”

Sure, brands getting more accurate at forecasting would be a good thing. For example, it would seriously diminish the industry’s inventory problem and reliance on over-ordering (which, as my podcast co-host Jessie Li likes to point out, is the more apt term for overproduction). …

As a garment factory manager, I hated being audited for due diligence. Here’s what I wish social compliance auditors had asked me about instead.

Photo by Alex Lopez on Unsplash

Due diligence is at the heart of the sustainable fashion agenda, and, increasingly, a legal requirement. Theoretically, I’m all for it. In an industry with a history of greeting injustices and scandals with cries of “it was them, not me!” — it’s a particularly welcome antidote. Nevertheless, I’m concerned about interpretation.

Will due diligence requirements push companies to consider their own role in the systemic challenges we’re collectively up against? Or will they emphasize verification and control, subsumed by a broader arsenal of command-and-control, top-down, approaches to sustainable fashion?

What is due diligence?

Factory costs are driven by deviations from forecast. And it’s the fact that suppliers disproportionately bear the financial risk for these deviations that leads to workers being squeezed.

Check out this animated explainer version of the article, too 😊

Explanations for low wages and precarious livelihoods within the fashion supply chain usually go something like this: factory managers must squeeze every last drop of time out of their workers to hit the low costs and price targets the industry demands. Cue the calls for isolating labor costs from labor rights activists, sustainability executives, and the press alike. The thinking is: if labor costs are ringfenced, we can make sure worker wages are protected during price negotiations between brands and suppliers.

Intuitive? Yes. But an effective route to securing…

The litmus test for knowing whether an intervention fundamentally transforms the incentives is simple: will it systematically guarantee that the losses associated with unsold products are distributed equitably?

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

As a disillusioned consumer, former garment factory manager, and concerned citizen, I’ve been trying to re-imagine sustainable fashion. What does doing fashion more sustainable really look like?

And the thing I keep come back to is shared risk. The reality is that in an industry where financial risk is not shared, unsustainable behavior like choosing to subcontract to a sweatshop or canceling purchasing orders, make a lot of sense for the individual actors involved. And it’s not because they’re nefarious. It’s because the absence of shared risk makes it exceedingly difficult to do otherwise.

So we can keep auditing. We…

Oversight won’t change the fact that the fashion industry (as it exists today) needs a workforce capable of cheaply expanding and contracting. Better protecting the rights of workers requires talking about subcontracting as the systemic problem that it is.

Screen Printing Subcontractor in Phnom Penh

Research has shown that people working in subcontracted facilities often fare worse than people working in larger, more visible, garment factories. But our efforts to try and change this have been led astray by a flawed conceptual understanding of what subcontracting is and why it exists.

So what is subcontracting? Colloquially, it’s a term used exclusively to describe business arrangements between suppliers. For example, let’s say a brand contracts factory A to produce something on their behalf. Only when Factory A engages factory B, for all or part of the production work, is it called subcontracting. …

If we’re serious about making the fashion industry more just, we must stop relying on a one-size-fits all explanation for why manager-worker relations can become contentious.

Photo by Aok Samnak

As a former garment factory manager, it’s my conviction that stories about management-worker relations desperately need some diversifying. Often, this relationship is talked about in terms of a singular narrative: exploited workers and exploitative management. But this narrative doesn’t help us to understand a multi-dimensional and highly contextual relationship. Most likely, it isn’t in the best interest of workers either.

If we’re serious about making the fashion industry more just, we must stop relying on a one-size-fits all explanation for why manager-worker relations can become contentious.

Relying on a singular narrative might help us make sense of a messy and…

The tone of a recent New York Times report implicating apparel manufacturer TAL Apparel in alleged forced labor is inadvertently misleading. At best, it oversimplifies a complex problem, and at worst, it obscures the path forward for effectively preventing forced labor in fashion supply chains.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Allegations of forced labor in fashion supply chains should always be taken seriously. A recent New York Times report highlights a Transparentem investigation alleging potential forced labor among TAL’s 2,600 migrant workers. TAL is a large manufacturer based in Hong Kong that employs about 26,000 garment workers across 10 factories, two of which are located in Malaysia. But the tone of the New York Times report is inadvertently misleading. At best, it oversimplifies a complex problem, and at worst, it obscures the path forward for effectively preventing forced labor in fashion supply chains.

The allegations

What can we do to dismantle structurally racist approaches to sustainability? If we’ve benefited from race, class, or gender privilege: what are our implicit biases? How have we built these into our sustainable fashion solutions, policies, and institutions?

Recent protests around the world speak to the ways white privilege is deeply ingrained in policy, institutions, and economic systems. As many white people seek to educate themselves on how they might have unwittingly perpetuated oppressive systems, so too must the fashion industry pause to re-consider how white privilege has shaped its approach to sustainable fashion.

What implicit racial biases do sustainable fashion advocates have?

How the language of sustainable fashion obscures asymmetrical power relations and limits our ability to push for meaningful change.

Recent reports of modern slavery in the Boohoo supply chain are infuriating. But equally infuriating is how brands, and sometimes sustainability advocates, continue to talk about human rights abuses within the fashion supply chain as if they’re external problems.

When we allow Boohoo to say things like “we’ve terminated the contracts with the non-compliant firms” or “we’re going to do an independent review into our supply chain” or “we have nothing to hide” the subtext is that responsibility for these human rights abuses is located solely with unwieldy suppliers out to make a profit at any cost.

In other words…

How can the industry talk about equal partnership when suppliers are defined as a liability to be minimized instead of an asset to be leveraged?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By definition, rules are a tool of control; social compliance is effectively a set of rules for factory behavior, and audits are the mechanism for enforcing those rules.

As an industry, we quibble about those social compliance rules. Some say that the problem is the way we enforce the rules — for example, the prevalence of for-profit auditing. Others say the problem is dishonest players taking advantage of the rules, or their imperfect implementation. And still others suggest the rules aren’t fair and advocate tweaking them.

But the real issue with social compliance audits is their situation within a broader…

Kim van der Weerd

Co-host of Manufactured podcast, sustainable fashion advocate, former garment factory manager.

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