Fast Fashion, Unraveled
An inside look at one of fashion’s most important, invisible jobs
A few weeks ago, I met a friend of a friend — let’s call her Annie — for Friday night drinks. Annie had recently landed back in New York City after a postcollege move to Mississippi to help with Hurricane Katrina relief, and from there to Baltimore, Maryland, where she worked on affordable-housing projects. The years of professional do-gooding had exhausted her patience for nonprofit-organization work, and Annie, a Pratt graduate who earned her degree in (and, I’ve heard, has a gift for) fashion design, wants to find a job that strikes a balance between her love of fashion and the ethical imperative she feels to improve the lives of others — beyond designing pretty clothes for them, presumably.
As we sat down for drinks that night, rescue efforts and protests were just unfolding after the collapse of the Bangladeshi garment factory at Rana Plaza, which we now know to have killed over a thousand workers. To be honest, I’m not even sure I knew about it yet; we definitely didn’t discuss it. We were engrossed in getting to know each other, telling funny stories about our first years in New York. Because I have experience with fashion companies founded on ethical principles, people like Annie sometimes get in touch with me about finding meaningful work in the apparel industry. I told her about my earliest jobs in fashion, at Cynthia Rose and Edun, and asked whether she had ever considered the production side. She confessed that she wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but she was curious to learn more.
It’s certainly not for everyone, but for someone like Annie — who understands how to design and construct clothing and has learned patience and resolve from working under challenging conditions — it could be a great way to combine her expertise and her engaged spirit, and put both into making a positive difference through working in fashion. Production people are the everyday communicators between a brand and the factories that manufacture the brand’s clothing. They work to ensure the clothes are made to the correct specifications (of color, size, stitching, fabric, etc.) and delivered on time, at the right price. If that sounds like a pain in the ass, I can tell you from experience: It is. There are a lot of spreadsheets. It is also potentially very rewarding, because the job description doesn’t end there — or at least, it shouldn’t.
As a production person, you become an advocate for the factories your employer works with.
You get to travel and visit the people who produce your clothing. You get to solve problems. You get the satisfaction of helping a design team execute its creative vision. If you’re lucky — and your employer has positioned you well — you get the opportunity to improve the lives of the people who make your company’s products.
What you don’t get is much recognition, which may be why aspiring fashion designers are a dime a dozen (about eight hundred of them enroll each year at Parsons the New School for Design), but many fashion production managers ended up in their field by accident.
“I stumbled into it,” said Mary Katharine Bowen, who worked in production and sourcing for the Gap for ten years and now is a director at the College of Charleston’s Global Business Resource Center. Years ago, Mary Katharine was telling a friend (who happened to work for the Gap) what it was that she liked about her then job, in logistics — the communication, product testing, and process-oriented problem solving — when her friend looked at her and said, “That’s called production.”
My own path was similar. My first real job entailed facilitating the delivery of containers of housewares for my cousin’s company. He let me sit in on design meetings and, eventually, help manage production — though I, like Mary Katharine, didn’t know at the time that that was the name for it — of a capsule collection for Cynthia Rowley’s Swell line for Target. From there, I went on to the garment district, where I ran between fabric stores and factories on behalf of women’s-wear designer Cynthia Rose. By the time I read about Edun — Bono and Ali Hewson’s clothing brand — in 2005, I knew I had valuable experience in production. Eventually, agreeing with that assessment, Edun hired me.
At the time, Edun was a novelty: a brand that strove to reach customers at fashion-forward stores (such as Barneys) with a mission-driven sales pitch. Back then, the company was still housed in a Crosby Street loft, in downtown Manhattan, shared with the fashion brand Rogan and the organic-cotton collection Loomstate — all of which were under Rogan Gregory’s design direction. Bono and Hewson were right to go to Rogan, because for him, process is paramount (though their companies have since parted ways). For Rogan, working with only factories that treated workers fairly, cleaned wastewater properly, and achieved the best possible product was just a given. And he also took it for granted that the sophisticated customers his brand attracted should be willing to pay a little more for clothing produced in ethically sound conditions. It wasn’t just marketing; it was a way of doing business.
This stands in exact opposition to the fast-fashion race to the bottom that dominates the industry today. The disaster in Bangladesh — with one thousand dead, and counting — must represent the absolute rock bottom. These billion-dollar brands, multinational industry leaders, say they are ready to commit to a more sustainable future. In practice, many of the people who help execute these plans will be those who work in production departments.
The deadly crack in Rana Plaza exposes a broken global-fashion system that, at its worst, seems to value saving time and money more than it does human lives. The factory collapse, horrific as it was, is unique only in its scale. In March 2010, more than twenty workers were trapped and killed at a sweater factory in Bangladesh. In November of last year, more than one hundred people perished in the Tazreen factory fire,also in Bangladesh. And it didn’t end with Rana Plaza: Just last week, eight more Bangladeshis died in yet another sweater-factory fire. Nor are these types of tragedies confined to Bangladesh. Last September, two fires in Pakistan killed nearly three hundred garment workers.
As consumers begin discussing the need for global safety standards, third-party auditors, and supply-chain transparency, we have to widely acknowledge that much of the cheap, fast fashion we’ve grown accustomed to is not made in a fair system and isn’t sustainable — no more so than factory-farmed fast food. Even financially speaking, the winners are few.
While an inexpensive hit of retail therapy — maybe a cheap, trendy top to wear this weekend — seems harmless here in the Western world, we see now that someone, somewhere will pay the price. Simply stated, we cannot afford it.
We must replace the faster-cheaper-more mentality with a triple bottom line that accounts for the social and environmental costs of goods along with the financial. For fashion customers, that may mean spending a few dollars more for a garment we know was ethically produced, even if that means buying fewer things.
When I asked Mary Katharine what went through her mind when she first heard about the factory collapse at Rana Plaza, she responded with one word: “Subcontracting.”
Subcontracting was probably the reason that Benetton initially denied that it was working with New Wave Style, the factory that occupied the sixth and seventh floors of Rana Plaza. As a Benetton executive later told the Wall Street Journal, the company works with seven hundred suppliers to meet the demands of the fast-fashion market. (Incidentally, that’s the same number of suppliers a representative of H&M cited to me a few years back.) This broad base allows brands to get mass quantities of “designer” styles to customers at a staggering pace. If you’ve ever witnessed the feeding frenzy at an H&M or Zara on a Saturday afternoon, you can begin to imagine how urgently those stores require reorders of popular garments.
Subcontracting — essentially, the farming out of an order to another factory — happens because suppliers don’t want to turn down business from important customers, often for fear of losing them altogether. Imagine that a single large fashion brand could account for 80 percent of a factory’s business. And say the brand suddenly needs a reorder of thirty thousand V-neck T-shirts to ship in one week at a cost of $2.05 per piece. It might be that the factory simply doesn’t have the capacity to fill that order, or that it could meet the deadline only by pushing workers into overtime, which would be too costly to meet the brand’s required price. Rather than turn down the order or ask to be paid higher price for it, either of which could risk the loss of a major customer, the supplier can say, “Sure, no problem,” and then subcontract that order to another factory.
The “strike while the iron is hot” situation and the terrifying conditions it precipitates are exacerbated by a lack of commitment on the part of the fashion companies to the factories they contract with. Basically, if a huge company that accounts for the vast majority of a factory’s business decides to leave, that factory will be, frankly, screwed. Considering that a brand like Benetton or H&M boasts relationships with some seven hundred suppliers, there’s a bit of a power imbalance.
The alternative is a system wherein brands — and the production people who represent them — treat their factories more like partners, and less like contractors. For production managers, this is a much more pleasant, rewarding, and efficient way to work.
Mary Katharine said when she started at the Gap, back in 2000, the company was shifting its production strategy to focus primarily on quality rather than price. As a result, she explained, the Gap ended up reducing its factory base and strengthening its relationships with each contractor. Working with a smaller number of factories allows for more time to be spent on the ground getting to know each manufacturing facility and establishing mutual trust with the people who run it. A scenario like this lets a factory count on your company’s future business and plan accordingly. If safety or environmental measures aren’t sufficiently in place, that factory then can spend the money necessary to make improvements, which are sometimes quite costly, knowing it is an investment in an ongoing business relationship that will lead to growth.
Production people who spend lots of time getting to know their factories also have more credibility within their own company. It’s tough to have to tell designers, merchandisers, or executives that you can’t carry out their precise vision at the price they want, but it’s a lot easier — and you’re much more likely to reach a solution — when you can explain precisely what the limitations are and why. Maybe changing the piped edge of tank top to a plain seam could save a little time or money (though I hope we’ll see a future when mass-fashion companies decide they can spend a few extra days or cents for a superior product). Or maybe the team could have exactly what it wants, but it would be one week later than expected, because a factory is finishing a reorder that’s equally important.
These partnerships go both ways. My friend Nicolette, who spent several years handling production and development for a large fashion company that placed orders for easily one hundred thousand units at a time, recently moved to a small — but growing — company. Now she hopes manufacturers see the potential in her current business. Nicolette’s employer produces beautiful photographs for its Web site, and every time one of her contractors’ products is featured, she takes the time to e-mail the factory the photograph, letting her counterparts know how proud she is of the work they do.
“I’m not writing a giant check,” she explained. “So I have to rely on that human piece.”
A factory manager who is concerned about a deadline or a target price is likelier to say so to her production contact at a fashion brand if they have a real relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Ideally, such callouts should result in conversations about reaching fair compromises. In the absolute worst cases of crisis or emergency, such a relationship also should allow someone at a factory to pick up the phone without the fear of losing business because of it. (I remember a particular harried call when a factory in Lima, Peru, had its main computer, containing all of our sweater patterns, stolen.) If only a manager at New Wave Style had been empowered to call the company that had placed such urgent-seeming orders to say that a crack had appeared in the building, and he or she thought that their workers had better not go inside.
Sadly, it doesn’t sound like New Wave Style was that kind of factory. And there are some factories that companies claiming to have social-responsibility standards simply should not work with. Even though these manufacturers are unaffiliated contractors and often are on the other side of the world, a company’s values should extend across its entire supply chain. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has written two great books about this, and a couple of colleagues and I got it down to some simple shorthand during our own factory visits: If you don’t want to pee in a factory’s bathroom, that’s a problem. Ditto about if you would eat in the lunchroom. Those are simple, solvable issues, if you believe in the good intent of the owners and managers of the factory. That’s where investing in the relationship comes in. But if a factory owner is a greedy gangster willing to unfairly exploit workers, even ones who are children, for his own bottom line, get out. Would you ever partner with such a person?
My coworkers and I used to joke that the best-case scenario was for the production department to go unnoticed. “You don’t get the glory,” said Nadiyah Bradshaw-Spencer, who worked with me at Edun and now runs production and sourcing for Suno. “When [an item is] designed well and it sells well, for a design house, it’s the designer who gets all the praise. When it’s a Limited or a Gap, [the praise is for] the merchandiser who bought successfully. But when it all goes to shit, it’s the production person!”
As a somewhat biased former production person, I can attest to this. The good news is that as I watch my friends and former colleagues advance in the field, I see their progress becoming more visible from the outside — and, amid market conditions like those that precipitated the disaster in Bangladesh, all the more necessary. Forward-thinking clothing companies are owning up to their production strategies, and even making them part of their brands’ identities.
As this transparency grows, fashion brands must develop supply chains they can be proud of.
They must empower production people like Nadiyah (who is buzzing at the moment about a fabulous, female-owned, vertically integrated factory she just started working with) to develop and maintain relationships with suppliers.
In the ten years or so since Mary Katharine, Maya, Nadiyah, and I started working in this industry, strides have been made in the areas of corporate social responsibility and environmental accountability — and not just at small “eco” companies. But there are miles to go. Weeks after my drinks with Annie, Bangladeshis were still searching for their loved ones, now presumed dead, in the rubble at Rana Plaza.
Meanwhile, a group of about thirty retailers, including Walmart, Gap, and H&M, have met to discuss sharing the results of factory inspections with one another. I hope this kind of transparency and cooperation indicates an industry-wide willingness to acknowledge a badly broken system and start building something better.
I’ve yet to hear what will be next for Annie. But as long as compassionate, driven, talented people like her continue to ask where they can promote positive change within the fashion industry, I’ll suggest that the production department might be a good place to start.