Connecting the Dots of the Fashion Supply Chain

In the not-too-distant past, there weren’t many—if any—consumer resources to learn about your favorite fashion brands’ supply chain ethics or sustainability. But after several tragic disasters in the early twenty-first century, consumers are demanding transparency and higher standards from the fashion industry when it comes to garment worker safety, living wages, human rights, and sustainable raw material production and end-of-life. This demand from consumers—who are themselves a part of the supply chain—helps keep brands and the larger fashion industry accountable for their actions, which impact the environment and workers around the globe

Supply chain traceability—including farmers, spinners, weavers, dyers, sewers, transportation workers, and others—is key to transparency and improved practices.

The basics

The start of the supply chain for any fashion brand is sourcing raw materials. This first step impacts the environment as well as the farmers, harvesters, and/or animals (for their wool, hides, hair, etc.). How is the water sourced, used, and returned to the environment for growing crops like cotton? Are any chemicals used? How much oil is used or carbon produced at any stage of harvesting? Are sustainable practices encouraged? Are the farmers paid living wages?

A similar list of questions needs to be asked at each step of the production, manufacturing, and transportation chains.

Continuing with textile production, the complex process involves spinning the raw material into fibers, weaving it into fabric, dyeing it, and then the cutting, sewing, finishing, and sometimes pre-washing (ex. for jeans) of the garments. So far in the fashion supply chain, millions of people and incredible amounts of natural resources, like water, have been involved.

You can begin to see how complex the industry and systems that deliver clothing to you are. And with the increase in demand for high speed, high volume, and cheap consumption (often called “fast fashion”) over the past twenty plus years, you can understand how companies would be motivated to cut corners and not maintain supply chain traceability and transparency.

The majority of fashion brands and retailers do not own manufacturing facilities—they rely on contracting, subcontracting, and sub-subcontracting. Losing sight of the participants in clothing production and always chasing the cheapest price has cost lives.

Examples of disaster

On April 24, 2013, in Savar, Bangladesh, 1,134 garment workers lost their lives and 2,500 were injured when their garment factory, called Rana Plaza, collapsed. Over 5,000 people worked in the unstable and crumbling building, making clothes for some of the biggest global fashion brands. Most of the victims were young women. The Rana Plaza disaster is the fourth largest industrial disaster in history, and it never should have happened.

Many workers had complained about the unsafe working conditions, but due to the high demand of the fashion industry and the cost savings of continuing to work in a dilapidated building rather than securing safer facilities, their supervisors told them to keep working. It took months to track down the brands who had subcontracted work out to these workers, and many of the brands claimed ignorance of the danger to workers’ lives because their supply chain had become so complex, globalized, and opaque.

The year before the Rana Plaza disaster, a factory fire in Pakistan’s Ali Enterprises factory and one in Bangladesh’s Tazreen Fashions factory killed more than 350 workers—all due to unsafe working conditions and violated workers’ rights. The list goes on.

But there is hope.

What can be done

There are movements you as a consumer can support and follow—like Fashion Revolution, and #WhoMadeMyClothes. There are petitions you can sign to demand supplier factory transparency and allow unions and other labor advocates to alert brands to labor abuses in these factories.

And of course, you can effect change by how you spend your money. See if you can find out from a brand the “how, where, and by whom” the clothes are made, and if workers are being treated humanely. Consider downloading an app like Good On You, which allows you to search brands and read about their supply chain practices and transparency.