What clothes are you wearing right now? Do you know who made them? Or how, where, or under what conditions? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Fashion’s supply chain is a wide-reaching, complex, fragmented network of processes, countries, and individuals that is so convoluted and opaque that many brands can’t answer these questions either, even about their own products.

 



 

 

This lack of supply chain transparency is a large part of the reason why so much humanitarian and environmental injustice can take place in the fashion industry daily. After all, the harder a process is to trace, the less likely anyone is held to account when something goes wrong or is abused, if they even find out at all.

For this to change, an accountability movement needs to take place and we need all hands on deck. So, to coincide with the release of Remake’s 2024 Accountability Report, we’re taking a deep dive into the fashion supply chain and breaking down the fundamentals so you have all the information you need to know exactly what — and for who — you’re fighting for.

 

 

Firstly, what is a Fashion Supply Chain?

A fashion supply chain is a far-reaching, intricate network of companies and businesses involved in creating an item of clothing and getting it to the consumer. It plays a crucial role in this competitive industry that’s characterized by overproduction, where trends change with the wind, volumes are vast, and turnaround times can be eye-wateringly fast. It involves tens of millions of people worldwide, most of whom are women, and uses a lot of labor, water, crops, chemicals, and fossil fuels.

“Fashion, as a system, is paralyzed by imbalanced power relations” – Dr. Hakan Karaosman

The chain spans a wide range of stages and duties. In terms of production and retail (before considering the lifespan of a finished garment and the second-hand clothing market), the supply chain traditionally includes (but is not limited to, nor necessarily in this order):

1. Designing the garment. This is the stage in which the brand decides on the fabrics, silhouettes, trims, and finishes for a certain garment. The volume of new products released per season can be monumental, particularly in fast fashion where many companies base their product designs on current trends rather than whether the garment will stand the test of time.

2. Sourcing raw materials and producing fabric. This stage involves the growing of raw textile material (i.e. cotton, silk, flax, hemp), which must then be cleaned, spun into a fiber, woven into a fabric, dyed, and finished. This is often considered the most environmentally taxing and emission-emitting step as it uses lots of chemicals (e.g. dyes, pesticides) which can damage soil, water supplies, local biodiversity, and agriculture.

3. Garment manufacturing. This phase involves cutting, sewing, and finishing a garment ready for shipment to retailers or customers. More often than not, this phase is conducted in garment-producer countries, largely in the Global South, where brands in the Global North outsource production in search of cheap labor. It is important to know that steps within every stage of the supply chain can take place in different locations. For example, cotton grown in China may be woven and dyed in Cambodia, sewn in Indonesia, and finished in Italy. Also, the finishing step is often where the “Made In” label is added and is not always representative of that product’s journey.

4. Distribution and retail. Once the clothes are manufactured they are then shipped directly to the customer or to the retailer where they are stored. Transportation of goods produces carbon emissions; much of the offsetting discussions concerning the fashion supply chain focus on this stage. However, this is somewhat misleading. To truly offset a product’s emissions, the entire supply chain must be taken into account.

 

What’s wrong with the current state of Fashion Supply Chains?

The current set-up of the Fashion Supply Chain is to be as efficient and fast as possible and to create huge profit margins for brands and their parent companies. This approach often leads to devastating consequences for untold millions across the Global South who make such immense profits possible. Garment workers in clothing manufacturing countries like India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia work long hours in high-pressure environments and unsafe factory conditions — conditions that are sometimes fatal, as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 made all too clear — to fulfill unfair and unrealistic production demands.

“Fashion, as a system, is paralyzed by imbalanced power relations,” says Remake Board Member, Dr. Hakan Karaosman in his paper ‘Supplier Inclusion Is Key to Climate Action.’

“​​Over the years, and as a consequence of other business priorities, many fashion brands have changed their supply chain model from one based on trust and innovation to one based on mistrust and punishment. Using coercive tactics … leads to disruptive consequences for the whole supply chain.”

Women are often subjected to gender-based harassment and violence, sometimes forced to resort to sex work to financially support their families.

Such coercive tactics include: pushing for the lowest price possible while placing huge orders, setting impossible turnaround times, and switching suppliers when another factory can do the same job for less. Brands also often make last-minute changes to orders, such as design and delivery date, which forces suppliers to eat the cost of work already completed and scramble to get the job done because they cannot afford to lose the brand’s business. To hit such wild targets at such low rates, garment workers receive poverty wages and often work overtime without overtime pay. Sometimes work is also outsourced to secondary factories whose employees experience the same conditions to complete the order. In these exploitative conditions, women are also often subjected to gender-based harassment and violence, sometimes forced to resort to sex work to financially support their families, and experience detrimental health consequences both physically and mentally. 

Further, garment workers often fall victim to wage theft, which occurs when fashion brands fail to pay for work already completed (generally, brands don’t pay for finished work until months after delivery, meaning factories/suppliers must foot the bill in the meantime). The pandemic provided a bleak example of this when brands canceled an estimated $40 billion worth of already completed orders, forcing factories to shutter and lay off workers en masse. Remake’s #PayUp campaign began in response to this wage theft. Between 2020 and 2022, it helped to recoup $22 billion of those stolen wages from brands including GAP, adidas, Nike, H&M, Levi’s, and many more. Without public demands from the media, workers’ rights organizations, and public advocates, spearheaded by Remake, it’s unknown whether this money would have ever been returned to the workers who earned it.

Four countries –– Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Vietnam –– are expected to lose nearly one million jobs by 2030.

All of this before considering the impending consequences of the climate crisis — in which the fashion industry plays a huge role — and the nations it will impact first. As we found in our 2024 Accountability Report: “The fashion industry acknowledges that it has a role to play in decreasing its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (estimated to be between 2 and 4%). But it has not yet acknowledged its responsibility to help mitigate the effects of climate disasters on fashion-producing hubs and the garment workers who make its products. Four countries –– Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Vietnam –– are expected to lose nearly one million jobs by 2030 due to extreme weather events, with an estimated $65 billion worth of apparel exports impacted …  And it’s only going to get worse for these supply chain communities. We know that as global temperatures continue to rise, extreme weather events linked to climate change will occur more frequently.”

 

What needs to change?

As it stands, fashion companies can reap profits and remain shielded from the consequences outlined above because they have no legal obligation to account for the actions carried out on their behalf. As such, actionable steps need to be put in place at every step of the supply chain to hold the relevant parties liable and put an end to the industry’s systemic power imbalance. This involves fair contracts and codes of conduct for buyers and sellers, which are audited by independent auditors, and enforced by legal contracts.

“Justice has three fundamental dimensions that fashion needs to adhere to,” Karaosman states. “Fashion needs to ensure interactional justice through respectful and empathetic relationships as well as transparent communication between the brands and the suppliers. Procedural justice must be assured where inclusive, participatory decision-making takes place with the representation of vulnerable communities. And distributive justice needs to happen whereby risks and benefits are shared fairly, and power is distributed between the supply chain actors.”

Garment workers must be centered and consulted when it comes to the writing of such legislation. Contracts need to ensure living wages and safe working environments, and include strategies for protection should unforeseen and unpredictable factors come into play, such as factories having to shutter due to a global pandemic or political turmoil. In 2023, for example, fashion companies H&M Group (Arket, COS, H&M, Monki, Weekday, & Other Stories), Inditex (Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka), Marks and Spencer, and Primark exited Myanmar because the country is ruled by a military junta engaged in systematic human rights violations. When something like this happens, there needs to be an enforceable plan in place to ensure that the factory and its workers are a) given plenty of notice and b) those laid off are taken care of. Some companies do have language mentioning responsible exit strategies in their codes of conduct, but language is not the same as a contract.

“Fashion needs to ensure interactional justice through respectful and empathetic relationships as well as transparent communication between the brands and the suppliers.” – Dr. Hakan Karaosman

Additionally, collaboration and inclusion are paramount. “Workers are a vital resource within a business and this resource is being squandered,” Karaosman continues. “Short-sighted supply chain strategies have historically led to failure. Contemporary brands would do well to realize the expertise and power inherent in lower tiers of their supply chains and work with those suppliers to make sure everyone can thrive. Top-down decision-making and exclusive governance tools will not change the system. Fashion cannot embrace sustainability if it fails to include those working across fashion supply chains in the decision-making … It is only through this radical collaboration that the fashion industry will finally see what, how, and by whom radical and inclusive climate action can be operationalized.”

All this is but the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t come close to capturing what life is actually like for garment workers on a day-to-day basis. But, as the #PayUp campaign proved, and as Karaosman states, change is possible if we all work together and pile on the pressure.

Take a deeper dive into the ins and outs of the supply chain in Remake’s 2024 Accountability Report and join us in calling for accountability in the fashion industry.  

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