By Julian Steinforth, Expedition PR
From January 21-23, 2014 the Texworld USA took place in Javits Convention Center, New York.The dynamic industry event brings together apparel textile suppliers and buyers from all over the world. Held bi-annually, Texworld USA provides the opportunity to meet directly with a wide range of manufacturers from Asia, the Middle East, North America and from many other regions from around the globe.
While at Texworld I was able to attended Edward Hertzman’s (founder and publisher of Sourcing Online Journal) lecture on global sourcing of garments where I was previewed to an overview of current trends in the garment industry. Although Mr. Hertzman touched on a variety of different topics during his talk, one overarching message came across loud and clear: reform is needed.
Excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and mental stress are all common working conditions for textile manufactures and “sweatshop” employees. Developed countries shift their apparel production through outsourcing to developing cheap labor countries. But where outsourcing ends re-sourcing starts, a term that describes the move of production within and between developing countries in search of cheapest and fastest manufacturing.
The textile industry with all its facets is complexities is not easily grasped by outsiders.
Never the less, at Texworld USA I was able to identify two main challenges that need to be overcome in order to improve working conditions of textile manufacturer employees all over the world.
1. Demand more transparency. It is up to the consumer whether fair trade products will have a chance in the near future or not. By demanding more transparency, consumers can force big brands to take over responsibility for their entire supply- chain. With “fair produced seals of approval” just as Fairtrade International (FLO), companies can be forced to apply ethics and compliance to their sourcing practices. According to Business of Fashion, “Mainstream attitudes toward transparency and traceability — defined as the disclosure of information relating to material sources, manufacturers and other suppliers in order for all stakeholders, including end consumers, to have a complete and accurate picture of the ethical and environmental impact of a product — have been changing as the fashion industry scrambles to catch up with rising customer expectations.”
A good example of how brands have adjusted to this trend is “Honest by BRUNO PIETERS”. Shoppers can not only trace the manufacturer and composition of the garment, fabrics and lining but also that of the zippers, buttons, thread and even the safety pin holding the hang tag to the item’s care label. Another example is Nike’s launching of the Making app, an open- source tool for designers. With the app, designers can get information about the environmental impact of the materials they use by scoring them based on properties such as chemical processes, energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas output.
2. Change the way people buy at the retail level. More and more we see consumers going to sites such as “Rank a Brand” to look for information such as the sustainability score of the brands they are interested in buying. But in too many cases consumers fall back to the habit of mass consumption, preferring to buy 3 shirts for $5 each, instead of one sustainable fair trade shirt for $15. These consumer purchasing habits are what ultimately drives the sourcing decisions of major brands away from sustainable manufacturers and instead towards the lowest bidder, regardless of what they pay their workers.
One recent trend that is working to put a balance between cost and sustainable sourcing is Nearshoring. For American companies this means creating the fabrics in America, an energy intensive process that the United States has a comparative advantage in. Then the fabrics will be sent to sustainable manufacturers in South America to produce finish product that are shipped back to the states for retail sale. This system offers cost savings without dealing with far away factories with long lead times and questionable working conditions.
Ultimately, it’s going to take more than a single person to change the current system that is in place in the garment industry. But if consumers, retailers, apparel companies and the manufacturers who they source from all do their part, a sustainable system that respects worker’s rights will one day be a reality.