Fashion supply chains are, typically, very long, involved, and complex. It’s often difficult to ensure proper transparency throughout them—in fact, since the majority of clothing brands don’t own their own factories and use cheaper labor overseas, many of them are missing a clear picture on what factory and working conditions are like. Many others may not have any idea at all where their clothing products come from or who makes them. Additionally, a single brand may work with hundreds of partners—suppliers, distributors, manufactures, etc.—at one time, complicating the supply chain and obscuring transparency even further.
A lack of supply chain transparency for this industry means that many brands can—and do—get away with unethical business practices and procurement decisions, as well as the exploitation of underpaid workers in many different countries, especially those in Asia. According to Do Something, women make up between 85%-90% of sweatshop workers across the world. Child labor is extremely common as well, with estimates suggesting that, globally, more than 160 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are forced to work. These conditions that these workers face are often dangerous, the hours are long, and the pay is rarely sufficient for a decent quality of life. In 2013, an eight-story commercial building named Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,129 people and injuring 2,500 more. The building contained many clothing factories despite the fact that it had been built and zoned strictly for offices. It was speculated that the weight of the machinery and the crowded conditions within the factories led to the collapse of the building and the deaths of workers who were unable to escape.
Many brands, especially fast fashion manufacturers, use sweatshops because it’s cheaper and faster to mass-produce garments in line with customer demand in these overseas factories than it is domestically. However, brands might actually benefit more from making their supply chains wholly transparent, researching their suppliers’ and partners’ business practices, and not using sweatshops. According to a study conducted by the Political Economy Research Institute, customers would be willing to pay 15% more to know that a product wasn’t produced in a sweatshop—and doubling the salaries of sweatshop workers would only increase the price consumers were charged on a garment by 1.8%. It’s clear that consumers are willing to pay more to know that their clothing wasn’t made by unethical or exploitative means—now it’s on clothing manufacturers to make their supply chains transparent and to know where their clothing is being made, who is making it, and what conditions workers are facing. Manufacturers have a responsibility to be able to trace and map their entire supply chain and supply chain management methods, to have a full understanding of how their suppliers operate, and to prove to consumers that their products are made by workers who are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions. To accomplish supply chain transparency and ethical practices in the fashion industry, companies should undergo sourcing and procurement transformation. They can start by tracing and documenting each step of their supply chain and considering the working conditions, costs, and well-being of the workers at each stage. They should also evaluate each of their suppliers and consider whether or not they fit in with an overall goal of sustainability and ethical production, and should make changes to their supply chain planning as-needed. This information should then be made available to consumers, suppliers, and potential business partners. Supply chain visibility in the fashion industry is no longer just optional—it’s a way to ensure that millions of people have the right to fair wages, safety, and a better quality of life.