We have spent so many years circling around various issues impacting apparel supply chains. We are still no closer to ensuring fairer purchasing practices today than ten years ago; it’s the same with other supply chain issues. This week I read an article that suggested the organic cotton supply chain in India was under scrutiny. This will impact Bangladeshi garment makers, many of whom use organic cotton. I could name so many other issues in supply chains that are unresolved; unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they will be fixed in the near future.
There is a common denominator to all of them: no one listens to suppliers. If they are, they’re not listening loud enough.
To me, it’s like a detective trying to solve a crime without considering its most important evidence. Take the question of the integrity of organic cotton. I know from contacts in the supply chain that this is a major challenge in India. I also know why this is a challenge and why fundamental reform will be necessary to restore confidence in this sector. I only know all this because I speak with suppliers, and it goes without saying: who else would be better placed to have a real vision of these questions than the actors themselves?
This year, our industry will, thankfully, return to live events and conferences. Interestingly, many of the key supply chain events take place in Europe or the United States. That in itself seems odd. Fashion’s environmental and social challenges reside in supply chains. We all know that. But when big fashion brands come together to discuss these issues, they stay close to home. They discuss these issues extensively among themselves.
The speaker queues for these events will likely be dominated by the same old faces, fashion brands and retailers, various NGOs and industry consultants. Can these people shed some light on these questions? Yes of course. But to get the full picture, we need to hear the voices of supply chains. Certainly, a 50% weighting of supply chain votes for each event would be the best way to ensure that we find out what is happening and how issues can be resolved.
Instead, we risk a scene where the same issues are raised over and over again – the same ineffective solutions are offered and no progress is made.
I was invited to speak at a major European event several years ago. My speech was well received; however, I wasn’t invited back to the event later, and I guess that’s because I had probably ruffled too many feathers in the fashion industry.
This question is of course linked to the theme of transparency. There is a lot of talk about transparency in fashion circles. But how can you have true transparency when certain voices are ignored or sidelined? True transparency means having difficult and awkward conversations. And that means having these conversations in public, where they can be heard by all stakeholders. The fashion these days is making too many demands on transparency, which just don’t stand up to scrutiny. An example is the public list of their suppliers. Is this a welcome decision? Yes of course. But please don’t try to pretend it’s for transparency. True transparency would mean allowing the world to hear what these providers have to say in an open forum.
Think of some of the most successful companies in the world: Apple, Nike or Microsoft, for example. One of the things that drives companies like these is that they constantly challenge themselves internally. Structures are in place to ensure that all voices are heard, good or bad. If there are issues, they don’t get swept under the rug (which, unfortunately, is what we do far too frequently in our industry). To get to this point, these companies create an atmosphere in which people are comfortable making their voices heard, from top management down to the lowest public servants. No stone is left unturned as they strive for perfection, and the end result is a constant process of innovation and improvement. And, of course, commercial success.
Now think about our industry. Are issues and questions discussed in public? Are all voices heard? Is there a willingness to openly discuss difficult topics? Are people comfortable airing their grievances?
Unfortunately, I think the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. This is a systemic failure of our industry to take into account the feelings of some of its most important players.
Until that changes, until we get real transparency and listen to the voices of suppliers, we won’t get the sea change our industry needs.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).