Fashion: it’s a world that touches all of us, whether we’re soaking up the glamour of the catwalk and new autumn styles, or simply popping to Primark to pick up a new top for under a tenner. But life for many behind the scenes is a world away from that. Quite literally.
For a brutal illustration of the reality of the fashion supply chain, look no further than the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which more than 1,000 workers died producing garments for western brands.
‘We realised that what happened in Bangladesh reflected a global trend where increased demand feeds fast fashion's supply chain,’ says Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a global advocacy campaign that aims to drive improved transparency in the processes through which crops are turned into crop tops. ‘People didn’t know what their relationship was with those producing in the building – they had to sift through rubble to find out who had been making what.’
Fashion Revolution is one of the organisations working to instil transparency in the supply chain, where a lack of attention can breed a wide range of abuses: from unsafe buildings and equipment, to excessive working hours, slavery and child labour, unauthorised sub-contracting, and exposure to hazardous chemicals. Plus workers face the very real fear of losing their income if they speak out against the conditions they endure.
What’s true for fashion could, of course, be happening across the board, in the supply chain of everything from food to smartphones.
‘Only 10% of the working population in developing countries are effectively covered by any health and safety law,’ says Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. ‘And the global toll of health and safety failures is shocking: there’s one death every 15 seconds, and an estimated 4% of global GDP is being lost due to illness. That equates to $3 trillion.’
This places a huge responsibility on those in the West, not only on consumers but on buyers: late changes to orders and unreasonable deadlines can lead to suppliers cutting corners and taking risks, or sub-contracting to less reputable outfits.
The business case
But raising standards in supply chains is not a purely altruistic endeavour. There are clear business benefits for improving standards and transparency in the supply chain.
Better Work is a partnership between the UN’s International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, designed to improve garment factory working conditions. It now covers more than 1,300 factories, employing over 1.6 million workers.
It’s proving effective. America’s Tufts University surveyed nearly 15,000 garment workers and 2,000 factory managers across Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Jordan, Haiti and Nicaragua, and found that production lines overseen by supervisors trained on Better Work’s Supervisory Skills Training (SST) programme were 22% more productive than lines managed by supervisors who hadn’t had the training.
The training lowered injury rates among workers and reduced instances of unbalanced lines, where garments pile up at one workstation while workers sit idle at another. Staff turnover was lower among the trained supervisors, as well as the workers they oversaw. Improvements at the factories centred on emergency procedures, fire safety, personal protective equipment (PPE), health and safety practices and first aid, all of which contributed to worker wellbeing and productivity.
‘There is strong evidence demonstrating that improving working conditions is not a financial burden for a factory,’ the Tufts review wrote. ‘On the contrary, it is a critical component of its success. Factories where workers report better working conditions, where compliance is higher, and where supervisors are well equipped for their jobs are more productive and more profitable.’
Having a full understanding of your processes means you’re operating at your most effective. And it’s worth noting that consumers, and potential business partners, are demanding increased transparency in their products too.
‘These days transparency in the supply chain is not just good for business,’ says Somers. ‘It’s fundamental.’
Still unsure whether your supply chain is shining white? Here’s how to go about cleaning it up…
• Document your supply chain internally and publish details of your factories and suppliers – beyond just that first tier. If you don't know where your materials are coming from, you can't fix any problems.
• Publish your information on your website. Customers, NGOs and those making sure workers' rights are respected need to know what factories you’re using, and which of your workers have rights to form unions etc.
• Make that information useful. A map may look pretty, but the most useful information for NGOs and others looking to cross-reference emerging abuses, is a simple factory list, including the name, address and contact details.
• Share how you’re doing. Let people know your aims and your progress. This creates a story people can buy into. And sharing testimonials from workers on the ground can help give them a much-needed voice.
• Use social media to tell your story, spread the message and get others on board.
Global supply chains will be discussed further at IOSH 2017, the international conference for health and safety professionals.