Why aren’t all designers and brand owners meeting with their suppliers?

Over the past week, Boohoo Group PLC has come under heavy fire for allegedly working with factories in Leicester, England, which have been accused of treating garment workers like modern-day slaves and not providing safe working conditions during the pandemic. The factories have been blamed for a rise in COVID-19 cases in the city, and several investigations are underway, including one by the National Crime Agency to determine if the working conditions in the factories will lead to criminal charges for the owners. Boohoo Group PLC sources roughly 50 percent of its clothing in Leicester and Manchester, and owns retailers boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, Oasis, and Nasty Gal. The Sunday Times accused Nasty Gal of sourcing from a factory in Leicester that is owned by Jaswal Fashions and pays garment workers just 3.50 pounds ($4.40) per hour, well below the minimum wage of 8.72 pounds ($10.97). All of this has culminated in a significant financial loss for Boohoo Group PLC, with stock prices dropping from $100.35 on July 2nd to $56.51 by July 8th. In addition, retailers like Amazon and ASOS have announced that they will stop carrying all Boohoo brands. In response, Boohoo Group PLC has tried to distance themselves from the scandal, launching an investigation of their own and saying that Jaswal Fashions is not a declared supplier. Still, they will cease work with any suppliers that don't meet their standards from now on.

This is a fiasco for Boohoo and its brands, but it can be a learning moment for other retailers. Boohoo Group PLC claims that they had no idea what was happening at the factories they source from, but in the era of transparency, that is not an acceptable excuse. As sustainability editor for Vogue Business, Rachel Cernansky, wrote, "Most fashion designers never meet their suppliers. They should." Designers and brand owners often don't meet their suppliers, especially if they are sourcing from factories oversees. This is troubling because it creates a disconnect between what it takes to make the clothes, and selling them. Garment workers who live in poverty-level conditions, are exposed to toxic chemicals and other pollutants, and are asked to work quickly to meet the demand from fast fashion retailers, aren't seen by many designers living in developed countries.

These supply chain practices are increasingly seen by watchdog groups, journalists, and nonprofits, though. Following the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh — commonly referred to as the Rana Plaza Disaster, where more than 1,100 people died — more attention is focused on clothing manufacturing. It would be wise for designers and brand owners to get ahead of the reporting and be more involved in the supply chain to avoid the predicament Boohoo Group PLC now finds itself in. Unfortunately, that's not the path chosen by many big names. Over the last several weeks, Lacoste and Adidas found themselves having to cut ties with suppliers in China publicly. There has been mounting research showing that these brands — among others like Nike — have been sourcing from manufacturers that use forced labor from detained Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are a Turkish-speaking Muslim group that has been subject to mass detention and, in some cases, forced sterilization and abortions among women. This treatment has led to international outcry with foreign governments reprimanding Chinese officials involved. Lacoste and Adidas may not have specifically chosen factories run by imprisoned Uyghurs, but they remained blissfully unaware of the situation until a report published by the Australia Strategic Policy Institute in March 2020. Even then, Adidas did not cut ties with accused suppliers until June 19th, and Lacoste waited until June 26th. Nike has refused to stop sourcing from Uyghur-run factories, according to Raphael Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament who has been active in calling out brands listed in the March report.

Brands like Boohoo Group PLC, Adidas, Lacoste, and Nike are now coming up against “cancel culture” and they will continue to do so as long as they take a hands-off approach with their supply chains. Therefore, it would be wise to switch to a more hands-on approach to ensure they won't be caught up with human rights violations again. For the time being, though, it appears that checking up on factories is too much work for many brands.

Commentary:

Why aren't all designers and brand owners meeting with their suppliers? Because it is easier to ignore the environmental and ethical dilemmas that come with opening that can of worms. Why spend the time and money getting involved in the sourcing of clothes, when most brands can switch from polyester to organic cotton and now call themselves "sustainable." The reality is that until brands or trusted organizations regulate everything from the making of fabric through final sale, clothes cannot be truly sustainable. I know that's not an easy feat for many small labels and part-time designers; most don't have the resources or money to get involved in their supply chain in such detail. But, with the help of nonprofits — like Remake and Fashion Revolution — and government regulation, any designer and brand owner who is willing to make some effort to be actively checking up with their suppliers can achieve better sustainability. It will just take some pressure from consumers and willingness to do the work from brands.