Over the past several months, disputes over sourcing have erupted across the garment industry. Orders were canceled, payments were stalled and employees were furloughed as retailers faced widespread store closures and plummeting sales due to the coronavirus crisis. Arguably, the greatest effects were felt by garment workers, who were also sent home without pay or lost their jobs as some factories subsequently shut down for good.
As the COVID-19 outbreak rages on, consumers are keeping a closer eye than ever on brand responsibility, which runs the gamut from a company’s economic and social impact to workplace representation. At a panel at Sourcing Journal’s Virtual Summit, The Sustainable Fashion Forum founder Brittany Sierra, Better Work director Dan Rees and Denim Expert Ltd. managing director Mostafiz Uddin spoke about the new age of responsible sourcing and best practices for companies as well as how they can ensure they aren’t estranging their ever-critical consumers.
Sierra explained that brands and retailers need to keep three things in mind when it comes to sourcing in pandemic times: transparency, accountability and the importance of having open and honest conversations with their suppliers.
“It’s very important for brands to share where they are and where they’re going, and being transparent about that process and that journey is something that I think few brands are really getting right,” she said during the panel, titled “Sourcing in Cancel Culture: What Suppliers, Society and Shoppers Expect When It Comes to Social Impact.” “The consumer is extremely savvy. They know what’s going on. They can smell greenwashing a mile away.”
According to the panelists, in addition to the immediate fallout stemming from layoffs at factories hurt by massive order cancellations, global companies face the risk of being “canceled” by consumers — in the United States and elsewhere — who have become increasingly intolerant of the purported lack of protections afforded to workers at the so-called bottom of retail’s totem pole.
Uddin lamented the billions of dollars in canceled orders that plagued factories in Bangladesh, where he runs an “environmentally sustainable and socially responsible” garment manufacturing plant, but also expressed sympathy for brands and retailers that are struggling to make ends meet.
“We do understand that the brands’ and retailers’ shops are closed, sales are down [and] people are not able to go shopping,” he said. “But we invested our own money, and we bought by trusting those brands and retailers. Now, when the pandemic started, they canceled [orders] just by sending a letter … The trust was broken, and it does take a lot of time to rebuild this relationship.”
Rees, whose employer is jointly managed by the United Nation’s International Labour Organization and the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, added that workers have bemoaned this “lack of compassion, lack of empathy and lack of action” on the part of brands and retailers for years. One way to spur change, he suggested, is by diversifying the makeup of the C-suite, which is largely comprised of white men — a stark contrast to the scores of factory workers, who are primarily people of color.
“It’s well known in business that diverse teams make more diverse decisions … The industry doesn’t reflect the diversity of the customer base and certainly not the supply base. They often follow rather than lead the ethical concerns of the customers,” he said. “Change needs to be led from the top. It’s a bit pale, it’s stale, and it’s often a bit male. [We need to take] proactive recruitment to boards and to the C-suite to reflect the diversity of our society [and] to really help.”