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Supply Chains Will Only Be Reformed When We Force Corporations to Do So

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Nike-Sweatshops-05

I too am shocked that fashion companies intentionally have little clue about what goes on in their supply chains.

Few fashion brands are implementing measures to disclose details on their supply chain, according to Fashion Revolution. Any ethical breaches within many of the world’s 100 leading brands may be undetected. Worse still, they may be undetectable.

Fashion Revolution, a campaigning NGO, assessed the transparency scorings of brands’ supply chains. The research was conducted through a combination of questionnaires sent directly to the brands and direct research from websites and published policies.

No brand scored higher than a 50% level of transparency. Such a score would require that brands publish “detailed information about assessment and remediation findings and detailed supplier lists from manufacturing right down to raw materials”. This requirement would be a basic provision in the eyes of many consumers.

The report noted that:

While we are seeing brands share their policies and commitments, there is still much crucial information about the practices of the fashion industry that remains concealed, particularly when it comes to brands’ tangible impact on the lives of workers in the supply chain and on the environment.”

Shocking.

The area in which the researchers found the greatest weakness was in respect of traceability. This relates to brands’ publication of supplier information, their address, size and production details. Perhaps unsurprisingly for supply chain observers, few brands published anything beyond the first tier. 14 of the 100 provided details of second-tier suppliers. None provided information regarding raw material providers.

On ensuring that supplier staff have a reasonable quality of life, the report was critical:

34 out of the 100 brands have made public commitments to paying living wages to workers in the supply chain (such as through collective bargaining agreements or as part of the Fair Labor Association) but only four brands — H&M, Marks & Spencer, New Look and Puma — are reporting on progress towards achieving this aim.”

The implication here is that, aside from the published commitments, few tangible measures are undertaken to deliver the promise.

The inference of much of this report is that brands are aware of the ethical practices within the supply chain, but are reluctant to publish information. However, the truth may be more mundane, if worse. As we saw in the recent BBC investigation into Turkish fashion industry, many brands are outsourcing large portions of their supply chain to a highly fragmented supplier base. Such a cottage industry of patchwork producers is beyond the powers of most buyer teams to trace and monitor.

Simply put, the supply chain can be just a mystery to the brands as its consumers.

I discovered this exciting presentation of the apparel companies’ ideology here:

Hear-No-Evil-See-No-Evil-Speak-No-Evil

This piece lets the fashion companies off way to easily. Their supply chains are mysteries because this is an intentional obfuscation. They don’t care what happens in those factories. Not knowing gives them protection, precisely through articles like this. This only changes when we as a society create legal requirements for supply chain monitoring, when we have an enforcement mechanism to fine companies for not making sure their materials are sourced ethically, and when we allow the workers affected by these processes the ability to use American courts to litigate for their rights. So long as this is voluntary and so long as companies can move around the world to play nations off against one another in a global race to the bottom while workers are stuck within their national legal systems, nothing meaningful will happen to ensure global worker justice.

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  • The issue was quality control rather than working conditions, but I once sat through a talk by an apparel company rep who had paid an scheduled visit to her firm’s Chinese supplier, and then doubled back later in the trip to look in unannounced, and was startled at what she found. No one ever said that late-stage capitalism would be pretty.

  • ThresherK

    Uncoincidentally, if I back far enough away, that photo looks like a typical, overcrowded factory farm building stuffed with ckickens.

    • At first glance, that’s exactly what I thought it was a picture of.

      • ThresherK

        Odd thing is I was going to call it a “barn” or “coop”, and then had to realize that those terms have outlived its usefulness on that scale.

    • weirdnoise

      Or, an open-plan office in Silicon Valley. Though the average pay is about 50x more than those garment workers…

    • DrDick

      The sad part is that is not nearly as bad as a lot of sweatshops, both here and overseas.

  • Hummus

    The problem is that any attempt to actually enforce supply chain monitoring would be hugely unpopular. There would almost necessarily be increases in costs to consumers (most retailers operate on narrow margins and would need to pass most costs on to customers to survive), and very few people are willing to accept higher prices.

    • And, of course, this is very likely exactly why companies chose to outsource production: it’s more difficult to get people to care about working conditions in other countries, so they can get away with shit that wouldn’t fly here, and because production costs are lower, it’s very difficult to undo the change.

    • As many studies have demonstrated, the amount of money it would take to ensure that workers make a livable wage would be pennies per pair of jeans. It may be true that replacing unsafe buildings would have some short-term expenses of note, but by and large, this is an excuse used by those who don’t really care about the issue and it’s certainly be an effective feint by industry.

      • liberalrob

        I would have no problem paying $1 more for a pair of jeans produced by adequately-paid workers in an adequate facility. But the average consumer is more concerned with the lowest tag price when they’re in the store, and not really mindful of the supply chain that resulted in that item being offered at that price. And as this piece shows, even if they were, that information is generally not available; meanwhile, they need to buy some clothes.

        That’s why books like Out Of Sight and continual reminders like this are so important. You’re doing important work here, even if on a small scale. I hope it gets spread around.

        • I can kind of understand why people might care about the $1 extra cost if they’re working class and can barely afford to pay their bills. One of the problems of this kind of capitalism is that it squeezes both labourers and consumers.

          At the same time, people who can afford to pay more to make certain their products are ethically sourced don’t have that excuse. That said, many might be able to fall back on ignorance, which is one reason that (as you point out below) we need to keep agitating about issues like this.

  • I suggest that supply chains will only be reformed when the cost of shipping goods from overseas become prohibitive.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Suggested reading:

      The Box by Marc Levinson

      • I remember the period before the 2008 crash when fuel costs were so high that it was becoming costly to even utilize container ships. And nothing is likely to change until those days return.

        • liberalrob

          My fear is that those days won’t return in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change, by which time we’ll have a lot more to worry about than the transparency of our overseas textile supply chains.

  • DrDick

    I agree completely with this, except it is not that the brands do not care about working conditions, they actively do not want to know as long as the price is cheap.

    • liberalrob

      It costs them money to care about working conditions. The only way they will spend that money is if there is incentive to do so. That incentive can be either lost sales due to consumer demand or financial penalties for non-compliance with regulations. Ideally, both.

      • DrDick

        Yep.

  • JdLaverty

    Problem is that many people simply give zero shits about poor factory workers in far off places. In fact, many/most middle class and upwards consumers don’t give a shot about the poor factory workers or the poor retail employees who run the clothing stores where they shop. I’ve worked on unionization drives in Boston where we spent an awful lot of time trying to convince student groups and other organizations supposedly dedicated to social justice to help us put pressure on the company to behave more responsibly. Most of these people weren’t even willing to join in on a boycott, for Christ’s sake (something that by definition requires participants to do nothing). It was one of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever had, and a reminder that the same people clogging up Twitter and Facebook with activist-y posts often don’t fucking care about ‘those people’ enough to put in even the slightest amount of effort beyond what it takes to get some likes and shit.

    • JdLaverty

      In other words, Erik is right but the thing is, people fucking suck, what else is new

      • liberalrob

        Voter turnout has hovered around 60% since 1900. That means only a little over half of eligible voters in this country can be bothered to vote for the person who’s going to have the nuclear launch codes. And that’s something that’s in their face every day. Labor conditions in Bangladesh are not on most anyone’s radar.

        All you can do as an activist is keep putting it out there. People will either listen or they won’t. But they certainly won’t if nobody ever says anything.

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