The most important aspect of a product for a customer is usually the price. In the last few years, we have seen the rapid expansion of cheap brands and cheap products, especially in the apparel industry. This expansion is also linked to the “fast fashion” model, where new clothes appear in-store every week instead of every season as in the past.
Today we’re getting more clothes at cheaper prices, but have you ever wondered who is behind this rapid production? We have to go down the supply chain to find out who makes the clothes, who creates the fabrics, and who grows the components.
Retailers set a limit to their manufacturing costs, and can even lower it further due to the current economy and to increase their competitiveness—often at the expense of other factors such as labor conditions or environmental preservation. This explains why, with globalization, apparel manufacturing occurs largely in third-world countries like Bangladesh or India, where the cost of labor is lower. However, to keep prices low, these workers—mostly women—work long hours for a very low wage (up to 100 hours per week for less than 30 cents an hour) in poor working conditions and usually unsafe facilities. We all remember the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013, when a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 2,500, with 200 people still missing today. In 2012, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory, also in Bangladesh, killed at least 112 people, and injured over 200. In 2015 in the Philippines, a fire broke out at the Kentex Manufacturing factory, a shoe factory, killing 72 people. Bringing visibility to the supply chain will help retailers verify the ethical working conditions in their suppliers’ facilities.
Public interest in ethical working conditions is on the rise, especially in the wake of these tragedies, but price constraints also have a huge impact on the environment. To reduce costs, cheap, harmful chemicals may be used to treat and dye clothing. With less environmental regulation, these chemicals can simply be released in the environment and contaminate the land and the water surrounding the point of rejection, therefore contaminating precious resources for local inhabitants. To combat this, Greenpeace has launched the Detox Catwalk, part of the Greenpeace Detox campaign, to push fashion brands and retailers to commit to zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals by 2020. Seventy-six internationals brands, retailers, and suppliers have committed to this campaign and are working on eliminating hazardous chemicals and PFCs (Perfluorinated Chemicals) as well as bringing transparency to their supply chain.
Today, some apparel companies, retailers, and manufacturers are beginning to operate differently to achieve a more sustainable and transparent fashion industry. They want to map their supply chain and gather information throughout the entire process to know who they are working with, and if ethical and environmental conditions are being respected. For even greater transparency, this information could then be relayed to the consumer to demonstrate that the retailer has identified its entire supply chain.
This information will also allow retailers to be transparent with consumers on the pricing of their products. For example, Everlane, a US fashion retailer, has already implemented pricing transparency on their website by detailing the cost at each step of the supply chain, providing the consumer with insight on the true cost of the product being purchased. Pricing transparency, in addition to price itself, could soon become a competitive differentiator that will give consumers additional criteria for evaluating the clothes and products they buy.