The term “clothing supply chain” refers to all of the steps necessary to create the clothing we buy in stores and online. This includes material sourcing, garment assembly, and the people who assemble them. Today, traditional supply chains are continuously harming people and the planet in their quest to make cheap products. Ever since technology began rapidly evolving, industries have dealt with the complications of changing systems. From the advent of the Cotton Gin and the first functional sewing machine to the invention of synthetic fabrics, technological developments in fashion have brought both convenience and crisis. Nowadays, the industry is a huge machine which we don’t fully understand. In the matter of a century, fashion moved from DIY to employing factories, suppliers, and manufacturers around the globe. While it’s exciting to see the world get a bit smaller, globalization has also led to mass exploitation. Although fashion brands continue to profit off of traditional supply chains, the planet and its people are hurting. We need supply chain transparency so that brands can be held accountable.
If you’ve been following the ethical fashion movement for a while then you know all about Fashion Revolution, the organization which grew out of the Rana Plaza collapse. Rana Plaza was a collection of garment buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh which crumbled in 2013 and killed over 1,000 people. Unfortunately, the collapse provides a perfect example of all the outrageous problems affecting garment workers throughout fashion supply chains. The collapse occurred because the factory buildings weren’t safely built; they were hastily put together just like the clothing made inside. Garment workers had reported visible cracks in the building’s foundation; however, the factory employers forced employees to continue working, no matter the lethal consequences. Forced labor is common in the fashion industry, as well as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.
When people think of trafficking they often associate it with the sex trade but about 50% of trafficked victims, including children, are sold into forced labor. – Shraysi Tandon
Fashion brands– fast fashion as well as high fashion– have their clothing made overseas in countries like China, Bangladesh, and India. These countries are usually far from where the brand’s headquarters is located and are essentially out of sight, out of mind. Most retailers don’t check to see if they are doing business with factories that abuse their workers, nor do they attempt to fight for garment workers to receive a fair living wage. Most fashion businesses are simply worried about their bottom line. They don’t care how they get there. Due to the demanding nature of consumption today, a race to the bottom has developed. Fashion businesses are only concerned about making money, not the people who suffer along the way.
While traditional fashion supply chains are sacrificing the lives of others, they are also sacrificing the health of our planet. From fiber to finish, the process used to create clothing is riddled with hazardous chemicals and waste of all kinds. This includes the pesticides used on cotton crops, the synthetic dyes used to color clothing, and the myriad of products used to finish garments of all types. Synthetic materials are cheaper and more efficient than natural ones, though extremely toxic to the environment and those working with them. Released in 2017, RiverBlue is a documentary that focuses solely on water pollution and waste occurring in fashion supply chains. The film revealed how harmful chemicals are making it into local waterways and contaminating drinking water, as well as killing wildlife.
Another issue lies in the massive amount of water used to grow certain crops like cotton, dye garments, and process materials such as denim. Last year, Fashion Revolution shared that it takes approximately 2,720 liters, or 718 gallons, of water to make the average T-shirt. That is the same quantity of water that one person drinks over three years. Water is being contaminated and waste takes place on a daily basis throughout fashion supply chains. The majority of clothing brands have refused to take responsibility for the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. Because supply chains are so complex and vast, most fashion companies excuse themselves from accountability, blaming it all on the systems instead.
Fashion supply chain transparency means brands must trace and disclose suppliers, factories, materials, and partnerships. Most traditional brands don’t know or share the actual details of their manufacturing process. FashionUnited found that only 18% of brands are publishing information on their supply chains currently. That means that 82% of fashion companies continue to keep information on how their clothing is made from the public. Yes, supply chains can be incredibly confusing and there could be many factories subcontracting out to other factories or information that the facilities themselves are withholding, but it is the job of these brands to investigate every partnership they have. Fashion needs supply chain transparency because the current systems are broken. Without transparency brands are able to turn a blind eye to human rights violations and environmental damage caused by fashion manufacturing.
It is impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected, working conditions are adequate and the environment is safeguarded without knowing where their products are made. – Fashion Revolution
With transparency comes accountability because with information comes power. Customers deserve transparency, to have all of the information before they invest in a company. While times are beginning to change and consumers are beginning to demand the truth from brands, we still have a long way to go.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.