Many tend to forget that sustainability is a very wide concept covering the environment, people, and the economies. And there is no argument that the pandemic has significantly impacted all three aspects and paved the way for a fresh re-look at the concept of sustainability and how to achieve true sustainable growth. A report involving research analysts from various organisations like BCG, SAC, and Higgs Co predicts a more sustainable future for fashion post the flat-lining of the outbreak.
The backdrop of change
As the world and consequently the retail industry came to a halt, global economies plunged, and almost simultaneously, foundations on which the sustainability initiatives were being driven got derailed. In fact, one of the biggest hits was on ethical practices in the fashion supply chain. It would not be wrong to say that the pandemic has exposed the hypocrisy of the businesses, which are so much vested in their own survival that they lost sight of what they have been preaching. It is obvious that the brands, retailers, and e-tailers have no strategy in place for the human rights impact of crises like the current one.
Even as the supply chain scuttles to find ways to save face after the initial reaction that put millions of jobs and workers in jeopardy, almost every retailer has been announcing CSR activities to counter claims of insensitivity. But that is not a solution; some fundamental changes are needed to ensure that sustainability is implemented in the true spirit and intent, in the long run.
If one good has come out from the crisis, it is the growing engagement of the consumer to sustainability commitments. In a targeted survey by Global Web Index covering 20 countries between 19 May and 26 May, consumers when asked how the importance of cutting down on single-use plastics, reducing carbon footprints, or companies behaving more sustainability had changed for them as a result of COVID-19; 56 per cent citied at least one of these initiatives as having become a lot more important. Interestingly, middle-income countries like India, Brazil, and Italy are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change.
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So, what are the major trends that the stakeholders in the fashion supply chain can expect on the sustainability front over the next few years?
1. Shifting focus of international NGOs from factory compliance to fair purchasing practices
One of the biggest trends to emerge is the changing attitude of the NGOs that has shifted focus from factory compliances to retail/sourcing practices. Policies and guidelines for long-term action and protection in case of another similar crises is needed, and it is good that the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) are taking a stand and even coming up with charter proposals on how the supply chain needs to take responsibility and contributing along with governments to create social security nets to support the workers.
All major CSOs reacted swiftly to the crisis, critiquing the retailers for their impulsive reactions. International development and campaigning charity Traidcraft Exchange strongly condemned the action of the brands in cancelling orders, claiming that the coronavirus pandemic is exposing the bullying practices with which fashion retailers and brands treat their suppliers, with knock-on consequences for workers.
Some of the areas where the NGOs are collaborating and finally pushing for better practises include – providing long-range buying plans to the suppliers, taking suppliers’ suggestions in altering product specifications to reduce costs, providing accurate forecasts in advance and meeting minimum order quantities when placing orders. There is a strong growing movement against strategies that involve pressuring suppliers through price competition that have the highest average impact on suppliers’ business profitability.
2. Voice for labour reforms gets louder
Labour law reforms have always been a touchy subject, but the pandemic has fast-tracked the debate with strong indication of changes on the cards. Ironically, one of the biggest assumptions in business is that any reform that is positive to employers and aimed at enhancing business is definitely negative to the interest of workers. This single thought process has been a deterrent to any reform in the Labour Laws, and continues to influence attempts to ease hurdles to get business on its feet, and even after these unprecedented times, that will require extraordinary effort.
It all started when few Indian states went ahead to announce labour reforms that were being demanded for long by the industry to help them get back on their feet. However, this has not gone down well with labour activists. It is being pointed out by various labour unions and labour right associations that the reforms empower the employers to hire and fire workers at their convenience, freeze collective bargaining rights, undo the rights of occupational safety and health, and without the Labour Department’s intervention in the establishments for any inspection of the basic bare minimum needs for decent working conditions, etc. During the said period, the workers are completely at the mercy of the employers.
The pro-change lobbyists argue that first and foremost, the reforms are focused on enhancing ‘ease of business’ which is critical for the businesses to get up and running, and have significantly left untouched the bases of labour law – minimum wages, bonded labour, and provisions related to children and women. The seasonal nature of the business is being cited as a major base for the need of labour reforms in the garment industry. The push for change has never been so strong, and rarely have governments, even in the states, supported these demands.
Strong arguments are being presented from both sides, and it is time for the Central Government to intervene and suggest the right balance that will help the industry, encourage foreign investment, as companies pull out of China and also ensure that the country projects the image of an ethical manufacturing base.
3. Increased focus on transparency & traceability
With the increase in conscious spending by consumers and the pandemic making localised production more important, transparency and traceability will lead the way for fashion brands to remain viable. Brands that can hold the faith of the consumer with fair work conditions, ethical and transparent supply chains are and will continue to see positive results from consumers in every country. Accountability has become the need of the hour. We can’t have a sustainable fashion industry, and work towards improving the industry, unless we can trace and track the supply chain, and also better understand the demands of consumers.
Sustainability will no longer be about what a buyer wants or what western countries perceive as sustainable. Both the supply chain partners and the final customers are demanding greater transparency to understand just how sustainable the initiatives are and distribute responsibility of achieving sustainability goals fairly among the players.
4. The sustainability discussion shifts to feasibility
The fundamentals of the fashion industry will have to evolve with changing times in order to remain viable both in the eyes of the consumers and to overcome the hurdles they might face in the coming future. After COVID-19, fashion leaders will reshape what it means to be a sustainable business – with a unified approach that integrates environmental, social, and purchasing considerations into core business practices, and the development of sustainable products as an area of innovation. But that is not enough; the discussion is also shifting to how sustainability can be feasible for all the players.
Even in the case of the calls for sustainability among consumers, they are now directed at everyone. Sustainable products typically come at a higher price point, and with increasing financial consciousness building among consumers, brands need to consider ways they can help make consumers’ sustainable ambitions a reality. Hence, even though consumers have high expectations of brands and recognise the importance of sustainability themselves, price will likely continue to be a barrier to adoption that needs to be addressed.
To make sustainability more feasible, expectations for the entire industry will be reset around greater collaborations, more equitable partnerships and collective responsibility across all parts of the value chain, as per the study, Weaving a Better Future: Rebuilding a More Sustainable Fashion Industry After COVID-19.
5. Technology emerging as driver for sustainability
The fundamentals of the fashion industry will have to evolve with changing times in order to remain viable both in the eyes of the consumers and to overcome the hurdles they might face in the coming future. Although ‘sustainability’ and ‘technology’ are perceived as two different terms, but in the past many technologies especially in the washing and finishing department have proved critical to reduce harmful environment impact in the garment manufacturing process.
Moving forward, the integration of technology can play a significant role in endorsing sustainability, particularly in transparency and traceability. The movement has already got wings with The R Collective, a Hong Kong-based sustainable apparel company taking the concept to the next level with sustainability integration to technology in its The Denim Reimagined project. The nine-piece denim collection is accompanied by scannable garment labels that offer four digital experiences to customers – supply chain information, less energy-consumed washing and drying tips, restyling tips to enhance the life of clothes, and an advice on recycling the garment at the end of its life.
The industry can expect technology to be a partner in making sustainability truly achievable. Industry will also see increased use of technologies like pollution sensors and real-time energy monitoring and reporting, digitised and standardised social audits, and phone-based worker surveys will allow for new ways of measuring, managing, and reporting sustainability.
6. Rise of collaborative approach to sustainability
The job of attaining a sustainable future is colossal and difficult for any single company to address alone. The past few months has taught the supply chain that everyone is in the crisis together, so finding solutions is also the responsibility of all the stakeholders. Experts in the field of sustainability have indicated that engaging in collaboration in the wake of the pandemic is not only a necessity to survive today and over the next few years, but it will also accelerate and solidify commitments for the future and bring sustainability ambitions to scale.
There are growing consumer and business partner expectations for the entire industry to reset around greater collaborations, more equitable partnerships, and collective responsibility across all parts of the value chain. By sharing costs and benefits more broadly across multiple partners, companies can adopt more robust and holistic sustainability programmes than they can pursue on their own.
While we debate on the setbacks and challenges, this crisis also presents the fashion supply chain with an opportunity to integrate sustainability efforts into core business strategy and collaborate in ways the industry has only talked about prior to COVID-19. As the industry starts the slow rebuilding process, stakeholders have a real shot at doing things differently and better.
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