From Remembering Rana Plaza to the New Fashion Revolution

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** This article by Michael Lavergne first appeared in the Sourcing Journal here.

In recent weeks I had the pleasure of being asked to address two equally important groups of Canadian fashion industry leaders; both the Master’s and aspiring undergraduate classes at Toronto’s Ryerson University School of Fashion. (Where New York is represented by Parsons and London claims Saint Martin, the Ryerson School represents the leading edge of industry education in Canada, and so receiving such an invitation was, for me, a humbling opportunity to influence young thinkers.)

I was specifically invited to speak about social sustainability issues in our industry and while preparing, the question came to mind, “What could I tell these emerging generations of industry hopefuls that could both open their minds to the challenges and leave them with a sense of hope for what lies ahead for the apparel trade?” Three themes came to mind.

Importantly, I wanted students to understand that the school’s efforts at embedding sustainable thinking and responsible industry practices into curriculum are in itself a significant step. Major gaps exist in industry education across North America but the past few years have seen a building momentum toward both recognizing and addressing ethical challenges in the garment trade.

The Rana Plaza tragedy nearly two years ago on April 24, 2013, brought that message home to many Canadian industry hopefuls and veterans alike when Joe Fresh, a leading Canadian brand was identified in the factory rubble. But at many institutions, the creative forces of fashion and those of business and entrepreneurship are still struggling to agree on what exactly the industry wants to become.

This set up my second point as I called my audience’s attention to the critical juncture our industry is at as a reflection of our larger society’s struggle to identify the role of business we want to see today. We are arguably the best educated, prepared, equipped and financed generation ever to tackle the human and environmental ills which the global apparel trade has wrought in its wake. In the battle of philosophies, either the ‘profit at all costs’ school will win out or the ‘forces for change’ camp will. Do today’s designers, merchants and entrepreneurs have the tools, training and skills for what is coming?

I concluded on a final point which I believe is key to the re-engineering of fashion trades as a set of local, sustainable systems: that it is wholly in the hands of each student to choose between the two paths ahead of them. They can choose to engage, challenge and energize fashion while shaping it to be an active participant in a sustainable world.

If not, the other road leads to conformity, mass efficiency, standardization, brand versus product and financial returns above all else. It was, I told students, for them to choose the future of the industry they wanted to be a part of. Luckily for us all, some exciting new outliers and efforts are now helping to point the way forward but it won’t be an easy path.

Today’s $1.1 trillion global apparel markets will reach $2 trillion by the year 2025 with Canada representing only 2 percent of the spending pie while China becomes the largest global consumer of apparel. We bought nearly 28 billion Canadian dollars ($22.45 billion) in fashion and apparel in 2014 with women’s wear accounting for half that total spend.

To feed the demand for fashion at more accessible prices, the two dozen Canadian and American retailers who control our market imported 10 billion Canadian dollars ($8 billion) worth of apparel in 2013, an increase of 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.6 billion) over the previous five years while population growth was essentially flat.

China, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam account for 60 percent of the origin of those goods where monthly manufacturing wages range from $60–$165 per month…per month…for an average 65-hour work week.

Meanwhile, Canadian manufacturers shed nearly 100,000 apparel factory jobs over the past decade which supported another estimated 200,000 jobs in local communities while most consumers only celebrated reduced clothing bills while filing local landfills with discarded fast-fashion.

What was not abundantly clear to consumers was the price that more low-cost fashion would have on local manufacturing communities, on worker’s health and human rights, on the physical environment and ecosystems with which our industry intersects at so many points. With our educational institutes only recently bringing these issues into the classroom, one couldn’t expect the average shopper to know any better.

While organizations like Toronto-based Fashion Takes Action offers classroom experiences and awareness education in consumption, Fair Trade and sustainability, few other resources seem to have invested time or effort into public civics education for the world of today, the world of living wages, ethical consumption, individual rights and, above all, in an interconnected global society, the right to know.

Now the same communications innovations of the Internet age, which facilitate globalized manufacturing, have enabled citizens, interest groups, investors and the media to take a closer look at what those manufacturing supply chains look like in ever-greater detail. This was not what businesses bargained for when it pushed offshore beyond domestic stakeholder’s eyes into low-cost developing countries, and many have been understandably nervous with calls for change.

It has taken 20 years for marketplace stakeholders to gain even a glimpse into apparel supply chains still riddled with risk and uncertainty. Over the same time, our understanding of the fallout of toxins in supply chains on our health and well-being has evolved.

The outcry at the human toll from factory fires and accidents at sub-par facilities around the world has slowly but surely pushed industry leaders onto the bandwagon of change. This comes amidst renewed calls for greater levels of regulatory transparency into consumer product supply chains. The prospects look promising.

Across the country last month, Worldvision Canada sought to call attention to the fact that Canadians know little about the risks of child labour embedded in the clothes and food we consume on a daily basis. Many in the ethics field argue that this stems from our expectation that business and government have dealt effectively with these issues, managing risks and unsavory origins from the market. We expect that companies earn the public’s trust and a ‘license to operate’ in good faith simply by being here in our markets, administered by order and good government, beholden to the public and the law.

More often than not however, the law has been turned to serve the interests of those who are least interested in transparency to silence critics or withhold information from the marketplace. Organizations seek, on the one hand, to hold themselves up as examples of corporate responsibility while on the other applying legal force to shut out transparency, the sunlight which U.S. Justice Louise Brandeis called “the best of all disinfectants.” And the laws we respect here at home hold little if any power over the actions of homegrown firms as they operate overseas.

As we again approach April 24, it is rewarding to know that there are thousands of individuals working at brands, retailers, auditing firms, NGOs, unions and government bodies across the world to make creative consumer industries more responsible, or “less bad” in terminology borrowed from the cradle-to-cradle crowd. These are laudable efforts but for the most part we are tinkering with the current system.

A true Fashion Revolution is what is needed and what has been called for. This call has come most vocally to date from across the Atlantic. U.K. ethical industry pioneers like Carry Somers, Orsola de Castro and Safia Minney, journalist Lucy Siegle, activist Tansy Hoskins and designers from Katharine Hamnett to Vivienne Westwood have challenged industry, consumers and government alike to re-think and re-imagine the business of fashion.

An industry struggle to identify and align with outliers is now underway at many brands. Others in the media have already tilted toward applauding a wholesale industry conversion to a sustainable future as a sure thing. But having spent 20 years working at brands and retailers on the business side of sourcing and procurement I am somewhat more cynical. Cost and commercial considerations still rule 95 percent of all decisions and few brands have yet successfully embedded sustainability and ethical practices deep into their strategic business plans and buying practices.

The wealth of information coming to light with regards to how global apparel supply chains negatively impact people and the planet also confronts us with compelling moral questions. Near everything we consume as individuals is tied to the exploitation of other people, of nature, or of both.

Certainly some forms of it are near-benign or might be called voluntary, but far too much of what happens in the offshore apparel world remains out of sight and beyond the ability of most people to make an informed decision. If they were aware or not, the end result is the same. We have all been converted into fully culpable participants of globalized, systemic exploitation for the benefit of maintaining our standards of living and social safety nets while generating multibillion dollar profits for a small minority of the millions of industry stakeholders who bring us our clothing every day.

Deconstructing and re-engineering such a system requires more than simply the vision to do so, it requires extraordinary leadership. Who exactly might take up the cause of ethical, sustainable fashion in this country is anyone’s guess at the moment but few from industry institutions would seem to have their hands up. With any luck, we won’t have to look much further than the next generation of aspiring industry professionals like those from Ryerson, eager to challenge the status quo and to re-prioritize the intrinsic values which textiles and apparel can offer us.

Michael Lavergne is a Responsible Supply Chain professional with 20 years of multinational experience at organizations from Sara Lee/Champion to Joe Fresh and WRAP. His new book, “FIXING FASHION; Rethinking the way we make, market and buy our clothes,” is out in the U.S. and Canada this September with New Society Publishers.

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