This week we look at two questions. The first one is: what do suppliers think consumers can/should do to shop more responsibly? And the second one is: if life as a garment factory owner is so tough, do people remain in the business? Why not… [...]
25 Nov 2020

Question 1:

This episode we want to address two questions… This is the first one that we’ve gotten from a lot of listeners outside the industry:

“As a consumer, it’s sometimes hard to understand all the different steps that needs to happen and who usually does them. What part of the production process do you do? What kinds of raw materials do you need? And who do you sell to? Do you know where your raw material suppliers get their inputs from? What’s your view on what consumers can/should do to shop more responsibly?

Responses to Question 1:

One supplier responded: “Tough one…stop buying fast fashion! Honestly, I think to shop more responsibly means looking for quality and durability. It’s not necessarily about finding the organic cotton, or a responsible supply chain. These are important. But lessening your purchases and holding on longer to what you do purchase will have a more lasting impact on the planet. From a social perspective, a sudden shift like this could mean loss of jobs for vulnerable workers in the supply chain. Yet, a sudden shift is unlikely and I do not think it would mean long-term unemployment. Rather a shift in economic productivity away from fashion, and perhaps towards more sustainable industries.

As for the steps required to produce a garment and who does them: Completely understand the sentiment being a consumer myself. It’s why I believe in transparency. As a finished product manufacturer, we generally know our mill, dyehouses, and spinners. At least from our major fabric manufacturers. However, from our customer nominated fabric suppliers, who is doing what is a bit more opaque, especially if the end product is not going through our special finishing process. Our special finishing process requires us to work with the fabric mills to ensure the quality of the fabric for our finishing process. We also generally know the region where our raw cotton is coming from. We don’t know exact farms or gins, but we know the region. What kind of raw materials we need depends on the product. Cotton a bit easier to trace. Polyester back to the oil well, probably impossible. Overall, we generally know where the material is from, but these supply chain routes can fluctuate day to day quite a bit, so mapping them for a single product can be more difficult.

Another supplier responded: “I’d rather propose a simple approach. Just ask: “Who made my clothes?” Demand to see the factory’s name on Care Label. Shift the focus from glittery-media savvy topics like ‘biodegradable’/’organic’/’eco-friendly’ materials, and start considering the humans behind your clothes.

Does it really matter if your jeans saved 5 liters of water, while the factory employing 5,000 workers faced a discount on shipment? I remember Makala Schouls’ interview (episode 7), where she put it very correctly that garments is a human industry and you cannot take the human factor out of it.”

Note from Jessie: In this context the word “discount” is used to refer to when brands ask their suppliers for a discounted price on an order. We’re not talking about discounts for the end consumer. To learn more about this we recommend going back to listen to episode 1, when Jessie shares about her time working for a third party inspection company. In it she explains how quality inspection reports were used as a kind of insurance – to tie factory performance to a brand’s sales performance.

Question 2:

The second question we want to address today is related to this week’s episode, released yesterday. In this episode we share part two of our conversation with Nurul Muktadir Bappy about why, if life as a garment factory owner is so tough, do people remain in the business? Why not quit? In the episode I also end up sharing quite a bit about my experience shutting down a garment factory in Cambodia. But we wanted to get insight from a few more voices.

Responses to question 2:

One respondent said: “I believe there’s pretty contrasting reasons that suppliers stay in the industry. (Sorry if it sounds like I’m generalising, but its my observation)

1. First Generation owners stay because its the only industry they know since 30-40 years. So even though business may have become tougher over their tenure, they feel an obligation to their employee base to continue operations (of course they won’t run business at a loss, but may be ok to run it at lower margins than 10-15 years ago).

2. Second-Third Generation owners are in the industry because they feel the supplier/manufacturer part of the equation is crucial to the success of a brand. Therefore they seek a more equal equation with their client.”

Another respondent said “I’m not a factory owner so I often wonder myself. Garment making used to be a money printing machine. This was during the quota era of textiles. At that time manufacturers had more leverage because it was all about quota. Those who had quota got the business and those who didn’t lost out. This changed when the quota system ended. It opened up competition and ended up squeezing profits as new garment manufacturers entered the game. Yet, the profits made during the quota era have lasted for quite some time and allowed these business owners to probably place their money in the market or other ventures (i.e. diversify either their investment portfolio or businesses). I think we stay because we believe we are one of the best to do what we do and we are respected for this by our customers. This means customers still choose us because we offer good quality, but we know this can be fleeting. We can only stay in the game if we are considered to offer the best value for money, and we’re trying define value in a more holistic way which includes sustainability.

Also, owners are competitive people. They want to win. Showing you are winning is getting business and making money. Having the right strategy to do this is crucial and at least our business sees sustainability as part of a winning formula. Time will tell. But no one wants to admit defeat and go out of business. There is still money to be made, and it’s fun figuring out how to make that money.”

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