2013 was a year which reinforced the message that brands and retailers need to understand their supply chains better, develop stronger relationships with suppliers and uncover the social and environmental impacts of their full supply chain if they are to build resilient businesses, but they cannot solve the endemic issues within garment production alone.
A spate of factory fires and the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh which killed over 1,100 people, injured more than 2,000 and still has 200 people unaccounted for, brought the issue of worker safety to the fore. Moreover, Greenpeace issued three further reports on the impact of hazardous chemicals in the printing and dyeing processes on both people and the environment and heavily campaigned against a number of multi-national brands and retailers who they felt needed to clean up their act.
The effect of these developments rippled beyond the industry, engaging governments, NGO’s and consumers alike and within a year there was significant brand engagement on both issues. However, indirect sourcing, fragile governance within key supplier countries and a lack of transparency beyond factory level has made it difficult for even the most motivated of brands to get a clear view on how to tackle these issues, who they need to engage with and how much it is all going to cost.
In Bangladesh two initiatives, The Accord and The Alliance, were developed by brands from Europe and the US with just under 200 members between them and charged with the task of undertaking factory safety inspections. This required significant investment from the brands, particularly those signed up to the Accord which has to date hired 110 engineers to inspect factories and has conducted over 500 inspections. 12 factories have subsequently been shut down on the basis of unsafe conditions.
Despite these schemes and those instigated locally, it has been estimated that less than one quarter of the 5,000–6,000 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected to date. Moreover, due to the prevalence of the indirect sourcing it is widely understood that the worst of Bangladesh’s factories are likely to not yet have been audited or engaged. This situation increases the need for European governments to use their diplomatic leverage on Bangladesh’s economic and political elite, to build full endorsement for the programmes if they want to ensure long term success.
The new reports and campaigning from Greenpeace focussed on supply chains in China and Indonesia increased the number of brands signed up to the detox challenge to 20 and now include both high street and luxury. As with safety audits, brands cannot engage on initiatives to reduce chemicals within their supply chain alone, they need to work alongside others to share knowledge and gain greater leverage in motivating their suppliers to move towards more sustainable practices. The Zero Discharge for Hazardous Chemicals group has proved an important vehicle for this as well as individual tailored support from organisations like MADE-BY.
In order to tackle endemic worker safety, rights and environmental issues in the supply chain, we need to think more creatively and longer term; costs cannot be borne by brands and a few government grants alone. In a recent primer on sustainable fashion, impact investor, Dr Maximillian Martin has argued that to shift the clothing manufacturing process from an industry with opaque supply chains, indirect sourcing, poor labour standards and poor chemical and energy management, supply chains need massive impact investment i.e. investments that have the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
According to Martin, impact investors are looking to raise over $1bn to turn around factories in poor countries, bringing in both capital and expertise. These are promising signs that the money markets may also start to play a role in improving standards.
MADE-BY worked throughout 2013 to heavily support brands and industry initiatives in dealing with these myriad issues and we are very grateful for the Guardian for recognising our work and impact by awarding us ‘Consultancy of the Year’ in the Sustainable Business Awards.
We have worked with brands to map their supply chains (p.28), supported WRAP and 10 high street retailers on a programme to reduce their environmental impact (p.13), partnered with Solidaridad on an IFC funded programme in Bangladesh to train staff from brands from eight global retailers on water and chemical issues in their supply chain and engaged with the Better Cotton Initiative to support brands in sustainable cotton strategies (p.12).
MADE-BY has also expanded its team to include wet processing experts, chemists and LCA specialists in order to continue to support brands on their sustainability journey (p.24). Please do read the case studies inside, as well as an update on our partner brands' Scorecards so you can see the work and progress we are all making in this ever challenging but rewarding area of sustainability.