What Is A Supply Chain And How Can It Be Ethical?
Fascination with supply chains has risen drastically in recent years, especially when it comes to the fashion industry. Fast fashion retailers are obsessed with how much they can speed up their supply chain and ethical fashion advocates are focused on asking brands who made their clothes. For every item we buy, there are many hands which took part in making a purchase possible and the supply chain includes each business that comes into contact with that end product.
What is a Fashion Supply Chain?
A clothing supply chain traces all parts of the process, from concept to customer, which go into creating a consumer product. This includes where and what materials are sourced, how they are developed into something larger, and the journey the finished item takes in order to arrive in store or on someone’s doorstep.
– NC State University
The first step in the supply chain is the design, and it instructs the rest of the procedure. Materials, silhouettes, trims, and finishings are picked during the design process through research at trade shows, from trend forecasters, and whatever other inspiration is important to a particular brand or designer. Business of Fashion explains that ‘inspiration trips are often a starting point for many ready-to-wear designers.’ In traditional fashion supply chains, choices are either made based on convenience, cost, or specific aesthetics. Ideas are flushed out through sketching, draping, or the use of CAD (computer-aided design) depending on what “level” of fashion these pieces are being designed for. For high-end designers, it is a lengthier process and more creatively-driven, whereas mass retailers have less creative freedom and less time to make decisions.
The next part of the supply chain is material production and refers to the growing, as well as creation, of the materials which are needed in order to actually produce the clothing designed. In this step, there are multiple smaller pieces which are needed in order to create a textile ready for garment production. The process includes the growing of a raw material, spinning it into a fiber, weaving it into a fabric, dyeing, and finishing it. (Unless something is garment dyed.) Traditional fashion brands normally have a dedicated production manager whose job it is to research farmers, fabric suppliers, dye houses etc. Once the fabric is ready to be used the chain moves on to manufacturing.
Garment production is the part of the supply chain which is discussed the most, because this is where the magic happens. This phase involves usually multiple factories which cut, sew, and finish the clothes designed by the brand. Manufacturing happens mostly overseas these days in countries like Bangladesh, China, and India. Almost all companies, traditional or otherwise, will pull together specific information on how they want their clothing to be made and put it in something called a “tech pack.” This part of the supply chain, for mainstream fashion businesses, is all about getting the garments made exactly how they envisioned them so that retailers and customers are not disappointed.
After all of the garments have been made, they are shipped to the brand or designer to sort through and send out. Smaller companies will simply have their team sort, pack, and ship each order from online customers. And, if they have a brick-and-mortar store they will sort and arrange the clothing on the shop floor. Larger brands will often rent out warehouse space in order to do this process for their own stores and online sales, as well as sending their clothing to other retailers. Lastly, mass retailers will do the same on an even larger scale, though for their many stores across the country and world. Fast fashion retailers will also make sure to try and collect data on their customers through their online systems and in-store purchases which they hope to use to sell even more pieces in the future.
In layman’s terms this means that the quicker and “easier” the process is to make a product, the cheaper it can be sold. Traditional fashion companies have supply chains which benefit them and not the people who work for them.
How Can a Fashion Supply Chain be Ethical?
An ethical supply chain means thinking differently about clothing from the start. During the design stage, there must be consideration of how all of the elements of the supply chain will affect the earth and its people. From organic or natural materials to the end transportation, an ethical supply chain takes into account the impact their garments will have on the world.
In traditional fashion supply chains, there are over 8,000 various synthetic chemicals used and massive amounts of water wasted. In addition to this, child labor and all kinds of abuse are common in unregulated overseas factories. Many manufacturing hubs (even in the US) and their contractors often take advantage of their employees and push them to work for little pay, in horrible environments, and at the risk of their own health. While pushing a supply chain to be as “efficient” as possible is great for a huge corporation’s bottom line, it is not great for the throngs of people working hard for those companies for very little in return.
Supply chain management has historically referred to a process which reduces costs and improves efficiency, though ethical fashion defines this differently. Ethical supply chain management means that a brand is ensuring proper treatment and pay for the individuals working throughout the system to create a company’s product. It means taking more time to investigate the factories, farmers, and other businesses they work with so that they can be confident that their clothing is not adding to environmental damage or slave labor. Ethical supply chains require more money and more work to manage because consumption shouldn’t be easy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, nothing in this life is without consequence and sacrificing more resources on the brand’s end is a much better option than sacrificing lives.
The final step, which traditional fashion always overlooks, is the consumer phase of the supply chain. While this continues to be a shock to most (even myself), most of the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry happens once the clothing leaves the store and lands in our closets. There are microfibers which land in our water from synthetic clothing, high amounts of energy are used to heat that water, and too much of it is used altogether. While all of these elements may seem negligible on a small scale, they add up quickly. Those microfibers that are released from synthetic fabrics are estimated to make up 15-30% of plastics found in the oceans. Even worse, once our clothes reach the end of their lifecycle, they often end up in landfills.
– Good On You
Although many try to donate their clothing after it no longer ‘sparks joy’, our world has more clothing than we know what to do with and not enough mainstream technology working to recover them. Most garments that consumers part with end up in dumps, releasing methane emissions in the air and polluting groundwater nearby. Ethical supply chains need to keep all of this in mind when they either provide comprehensive knowledge to their customers or create a product that is able to live out its life without causing any harm. Some brands have started using the Cradle to Cradle business model, yet we need many more to adopt these methods. What we wear and how we wear it makes a huge impact, and I don’t just mean killer personal style.
Creating an ethical supply chain is far from easy, but luckily there are various technologies, organizations, and initiatives encouraging fashion companies to become more responsible. Many people are touting blockchain as the new frontier for transparent supply chains and others maintain that real investment is necessary for any large change to happen. At the end of the day, each fashion business must decide what steps it will take towards cleaning up their manufacturing process and not every ethical journey will look the same. What we can be sure of is that transparency is the future, so they better hop on board soon.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and is currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. Audrey is deeply passionate about conscious living and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.