Factory costs are driven by deviations from forecast. And it’s the fact that suppliers disproportionately bear the financial risk for these deviations that leads to workers being squeezed.

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Explanations for low wages and precarious livelihoods within the fashion supply chain usually go something like this: factory managers must squeeze every last drop of time out of their workers to hit the low costs and price targets the industry demands. Cue the calls for isolating labor costs from labor rights activists, sustainability executives, and the press alike. The thinking is: if labor costs are ringfenced, we can make sure worker wages are protected during price negotiations between brands and suppliers.

Intuitive? Yes. But an effective route to securing better wages for workers? I’m not so sure. As a former garment factory manager, it’s my view that solutions based on isolating labor costs are based on an incomplete understanding of what drives factory costs, and therefore worker exploitation. …

The litmus test for knowing whether an intervention fundamentally transforms the incentives is simple: will it systematically guarantee that the losses associated with unsold products are distributed equitably?

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Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

As a disillusioned consumer, former garment factory manager, and concerned citizen, I’ve been trying to re-imagine sustainable fashion. What does doing fashion more sustainable really look like?

And the thing I keep come back to is shared risk. The reality is that in an industry where financial risk is not shared, unsustainable behavior like choosing to subcontract to a sweatshop or canceling purchasing orders, make a lot of sense for the individual actors involved. And it’s not because they’re nefarious. It’s because the absence of shared risk makes it exceedingly difficult to do otherwise.

So we can keep auditing. We can create worker hotlines. We can pass due diligence laws. We can get better at forecasting. We can support unions. We can even ask suppliers for feedback on brand behavior. But frankly, I’m over it: though they may make a bad situation marginally better, they don’t fundamentally transform the incentives. …

Oversight won’t change the fact that the fashion industry (as it exists today) needs a workforce capable of cheaply expanding and contracting. Better protecting the rights of workers requires talking about subcontracting as the systemic problem that it is.

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Screen Printing Subcontractor in Phnom Penh

Research has shown that people working in subcontracted facilities often fare worse than people working in larger, more visible, garment factories. But our efforts to try and change this have been led astray by a flawed conceptual understanding of what subcontracting is and why it exists.

So what is subcontracting? Colloquially, it’s a term used exclusively to describe business arrangements between suppliers. For example, let’s say a brand contracts factory A to produce something on their behalf. Only when Factory A engages factory B, for all or part of the production work, is it called subcontracting. …

If we’re serious about making the fashion industry more just, we must stop relying on a one-size-fits all explanation for why manager-worker relations can become contentious.

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Photo by Aok Samnak

As a former garment factory manager, it’s my conviction that stories about management-worker relations desperately need some diversifying. Often, this relationship is talked about in terms of a singular narrative: exploited workers and exploitative management. But this narrative doesn’t help us to understand a multi-dimensional and highly contextual relationship. Most likely, it isn’t in the best interest of workers either.

If we’re serious about making the fashion industry more just, we must stop relying on a one-size-fits all explanation for why manager-worker relations can become contentious.

Relying on a singular narrative might help us make sense of a messy and disorderly world, but it also makes it nearly impossible to notice the alternative, more complex, and less binary narratives that not only co-exist, but also leave more room for possibility. …

The tone of a recent New York Times report implicating apparel manufacturer TAL Apparel in alleged forced labor is inadvertently misleading. At best, it oversimplifies a complex problem, and at worst, it obscures the path forward for effectively preventing forced labor in fashion supply chains.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Allegations of forced labor in fashion supply chains should always be taken seriously. A recent New York Times report highlights a Transparentem investigation alleging potential forced labor among TAL’s 2,600 migrant workers. TAL is a large manufacturer based in Hong Kong that employs about 26,000 garment workers across 10 factories, two of which are located in Malaysia. But the tone of the New York Times report is inadvertently misleading. At best, it oversimplifies a complex problem, and at worst, it obscures the path forward for effectively preventing forced labor in fashion supply chains.

The allegations

It’s worth recapping the allegations: the investigation’s focus is on the high recruitment fees migrant workers employed by TAL’s Malaysian factories must pay to agents in their home countries in order to secure work. For instance, the promise of higher wages might lure a garment factory worker in Bangladesh into paying exorbitant fees to secure work in Malaysia. …

What can we do to dismantle structurally racist approaches to sustainability? If we’ve benefited from race, class, or gender privilege: what are our implicit biases? How have we built these into our sustainable fashion solutions, policies, and institutions?

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Recent protests around the world speak to the ways white privilege is deeply ingrained in policy, institutions, and economic systems. As many white people seek to educate themselves on how they might have unwittingly perpetuated oppressive systems, so too must the fashion industry pause to re-consider how white privilege has shaped its approach to sustainable fashion.

What implicit racial biases do sustainable fashion advocates have?

I’m a white, female, millennial with Dutch and American parents. About five years ago, I went from a bleeding-heart liberal with a degree in human rights to a garment factory manager in Cambodia. …

How the language of sustainable fashion obscures asymmetrical power relations and limits our ability to push for meaningful change.

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Recent reports of modern slavery in the Boohoo supply chain are infuriating. But equally infuriating is how brands, and sometimes sustainability advocates, continue to talk about human rights abuses within the fashion supply chain as if they’re external problems.

When we allow Boohoo to say things like “we’ve terminated the contracts with the non-compliant firms” or “we’re going to do an independent review into our supply chain” or “we have nothing to hide” the subtext is that responsibility for these human rights abuses is located solely with unwieldy suppliers out to make a profit at any cost.

In other words, the job of the brand is due diligence, to weed bad suppliers out. This language obscures the asymmetrical power relations that underpin the fashion industry and limits our ability to push for meaningful change. …

How can the industry talk about equal partnership when suppliers are defined as a liability to be minimized instead of an asset to be leveraged?

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By definition, rules are a tool of control; social compliance is effectively a set of rules for factory behavior, and audits are the mechanism for enforcing those rules.

As an industry, we quibble about those social compliance rules. Some say that the problem is the way we enforce the rules — for example, the prevalence of for-profit auditing. Others say the problem is dishonest players taking advantage of the rules, or their imperfect implementation. And still others suggest the rules aren’t fair and advocate tweaking them.

But the real issue with social compliance audits is their situation within a broader set of rules designed to eliminate risk for brands.

Done right, transparency matters because it has the power to make suppliers visible — and that’s what we need to credibly verify brands’ actions against their words.

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Photo by Brian Ceccato on Unsplash

I recently published a piece about how Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index inadvertently encourages a culture of control over equal partnership. Nevertheless, transparency is an important piece of the sustainable fashion puzzle.

Making transparency an effective tool of equal partnership requires re-framing why it matters. The reason knowing who made our clothes matters isn’t so brands and retailers can examine what is going wrong in in their supply chains. It matters because consumers need to hear from the people who made their clothes to be able to credibly evaluate brands’ statements against their actions.

It’s worth revisiting the logical premise upon which the Transparency Index as it currently stands is founded: the report asserts that if we know where and by whom our clothes are made, then relevant stakeholders can work together to fix the problems. The disclosure of more credible and comparable information enables accountability, and accountability drives change. …

Suppliers are the experts on sustainability, yet their silence is deafening. The industry needs to ask itself why.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The fashion industry’s focus on transparency as an answer to our sustainability woes encourages a culture of control over equal partnership. This critique naturally positions equal partnership as the “good” option, and it is tempting to take the value of equal partnership as self-evident. It’s a phrase comprised of words we instinctively think of as good and use regularly in an aspirational way. But why equal partnership would be good for the fashion industry demands intentional exploration.

For me, fear is the starting point of this exploration. Being a garment factory manager in Cambodia enriched my life immeasurably — I’m indebted to my former colleagues for expanding and deepening my world view. But it also traumatized me. Every morning I would wake up, prepare my thermos of tea, and hop on my scooter for forty minutes to get to work — breathing in toxic fumes and navigating traffic coming at me from 360 degrees. Fear was the predominant feeling. Fear of having a traffic accident in a country with a dearth of qualified doctors and health facilities, fear that one of the many massive construction cranes dangling over the road would drop its load, but most of all, fear of what awaited me in my inbox. …

About

Kim van der Weerd

Co-host of Manufactured podcast, sustainable fashion advocate, former garment factory manager.

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