You’re part of a brand that values people and the planet, and now you want to know how to source responsibly. You’ve done a self-assessment, taken a hard look at how your own business practices might inadvertently contribute to unsustainable outcomes, and feel confident that you’re ready to be a good business partner. What’s next?

Too often, sourcing decisions in the fashion industry are a function of one thing, and one thing only: price. Responsible sourcing doesn’t mean ignoring price (that would be silly), but it does mean articulating what you value in broader terms (where price may be one of several considerations).

To some, this will sound borderline patronizing. Most brands do have robust supplier evaluation matrices. But to focus on this would be to miss the point. The more relevant question is: how do decisions actually get made? Are those multi-dimensional supplier performance matrices reflected in the internal incentive schemes that drive a brand’s decision-making?

The owner of Pactics, the Cambodia-based manufacturer for whom I used to manage a garment factory, could often be found lamenting these very scorecards. We were one of the brand’s most reliable suppliers! We delivered on time! We delivered good quality! We went above and beyond when it came to social performance! And still, we were losing order volume and being squeezed on price. We were not alone.

We also routinely fielded requests for quotations from brands who’d given little thought as to why they were requesting these from us, a factory specialized in digital dye sublimation, or from a Cambodia-based manufacturer. It was a waste of our time, and theirs.

In an industry with an oversupply of suppliers, it’s worth emphasizing that suppliers are not all the same. Neither are production countries.

Implicit within these anecdotes is the idea that suppliers are interchangeable. In an industry with an oversupply of suppliers, it’s worth emphasizing that suppliers are not all the same. Neither are production countries. Understanding the advantages and drawbacks of various production contexts, as well as how these align with your priorities, is key.

In other words: finding the right supplier should be like dating. It’s unlikely you’ll find a supplier that ticks every box, so it’s critical to have clarity on what’s most important to you. It’s equally important to ensure that internal incentive schemes align with these priorities. For instance, if you’re launching a new line and your priority is being able to react quickly to customer demand, you should identify production countries that produce fabrics as well as assemble garments so that you don’t lose time shipping raw materials.

how to source responsibly 2
Garment worker sewing in Cambodia

This brings me to my second, more radical, suggestion: when it comes to the “ethical” part of searching for an ethical supplier, throw the conventional compliance checklist out the window (or at the very least, put it on the back burner). Instead, invest in getting to know your suppliers.

Again, it’s like dating. What you want is just half the story. You must have a sense of what your potential partners want, too. How does that align with what you bring to the table? Are you your supplier’s target customer? (Sidenote to suppliers: it’s also on us to be open to having this conversation).

My bosses, for example, were keen to work with smaller brands. They valued being able to pick up the phone and talk to an owner instead of dealing with layers of bureaucracy. They were looking for partners who valued the in-house sourcing and logistics support we were able to provide. And they were looking for brands that valued sustainability.

Nobody participating in this industry has clean hands, and contracts to protect against adversity and uncertainty are no substitute for understanding and alignment on values.  Is knowing your supplier foolproof? No. But then again, neither are audits. Remember Rana Plaza?

Understanding what’s important to your supplier matters, a lot.  Because the hard truth is that being “sustainable” can and does mean a lot of different things. We have yet to find the silver sustainability bullet, the perfect solution that ticks every box.

That means your supplier will have to make choices. And the reality is: the ethical trade-offs that suppliers have to make aren’t always so clear-cut. Every manager must define a very personal hierarchy of ethical priorities or be paralyzed by the day-to-day decisions that collectively form the industry’s social and environmental footprint. For example, when the choice was between subcontracting to get the order out on time or losing the order altogether and being unable to pay our staff on time, I chose my staff.

In other words: being “sustainable” is messy. It’s about trade-offs and compromise. You need to know how your supplier draws their red lines. What’s their hierarchy of priorities? The only way to get a sense of this is by getting to know them, spending time with them. In the words of Avishai Margalit: “ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.”

Our sustainability woes are systemic. Nobody participating in this industry has clean hands, and contracts to protect against adversity and uncertainty are no substitute for understanding and alignment on values.  Is knowing your supplier foolproof? No. But then again, neither are audits. Remember Rana Plaza?

Choosing not to publish your supplier list will almost certainly suggest to consumers that you don’t know your suppliers. But feeling comfortable disclosing your supplier list on the basis of certification schemes alone is inauthentic too, and will never supplant the need to know your supplier.

A parting thought on how to communicate your sourcing efforts to consumers: choosing not to publish your supplier list will almost certainly suggest to consumers that you don’t know your suppliers. But feeling comfortable disclosing your supplier list on the basis of certification schemes alone is inauthentic too, and will never supplant the need to know your supplier. Tell consumers about your sourcing priorities. Show them that your internal bonus schemes align with those priorities. Tell them how much time you’ve spent in the factories producing your goods. Explain your compromises.

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