The catastrophe has provided a rare opportunity for NGOs to set the industry on a better track

The catastrophe has provided a rare opportunity for NGOs to set the industry on a better track

If non-governmental organisations (NGOs) wish to remain relevant – and productive – they need to press their case now. Otherwise the fashion industry will go back to its old ways of doing business in a post-Covid world, says Robert Antoshak, managing director of Olah Inc.

In the famous 1976 movie "Network," a distraught fictional American television news presenter, Howard Beale, has a breakdown on live TV. It is quite a scene, well acted by the late Peter Finch.

But it is perhaps best known for its ending, where Beale shouts like a madman to the studio TV camera – and, by default, millions of Americans – exclaiming: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" He then collapses on the floor, presumably out of anguish.

That cry for help encapsulated – in a fictional setting – the social and economic frustrations of a generation of Americans at the time. Indeed, I suspect in these days of societal lockdowns, social distancing, and family tragedies caused by an outbreak of the insidious Covid-19 virus, many people can empathise with the distressed behaviour of a Howard Beale.

Life imitating art imitating life

The same goes for our industry. To say that we have suffered a Covid-inspired calamity is an understatement. It has collapsed. There's real frustration and anger, whether because of bankruptcies, layoffs, cancelled contracts, or outright terminations. It's ugly out there. People are fed up. They're crying for help.

"Things will rebound at some point. The economy will recover. People will always need to wear clothes, so an apparel industry will still exist in some form no matter what happens"

But, fortunately, it's not the end of the world. Let's get real: things will rebound at some point. The economy will recover. People will always need to wear clothes, so an apparel industry will still exist in some form no matter what happens. The challenge, of course, is trying to figure out what our industry will look like in a post-Covid world.

And it's here where I feel so many of the NGOs that gained notoriety in addressing the inadequacies and abuses of the pre-Covid industry can, and should, play an expanded role.

It's time

For all of these organisations: now is your time in the sun. Foremost, the time to act is now, while manufacturers, brands and retailers try to figure out their next steps.

What are their plans? For instance, will sustainability play a role, or will it simply be kicked to the curb out of expediency or lack of financial resources?

So many NGOs arose out of the concern expressed by a determined group of consumers, environmentalists, labour activists, and industry professionals genuinely concerned about the impact of fast fashion on the environment, workers and consumer behaviour.

But now many find themselves in the awkward position of having won on the sustainability front. But for all the wrong reasons. It was the result of Covid-19.

Yes, it may be a bit early to pontificate about what the post-Covid world will look like with any degree of certainty; even more so to contemplate how our industry will function in the future. But what happens to these groups if the industry changes its practices as a result of the coronavirus?

Indeed, the catastrophe has provided a rare opportunity for NGOs to press their case, ensuring that as the industry recovers, it can do so by incorporating the tenets of sustainable production, labour standards, and other important initiatives so dearly advocated around the world.

A rare opportunity

It's a rare opportunity to set the industry on a better track.

"If NGOs wish to remain relevant – and productive – they need to press their case now. The industry reset button has already been pushed. And many companies have drawn up plans on how they will restart in the wake of the contagion"

When I think back on how NGOs operated pre-Covid, there was so much noise, but so little positive change enacted. The industry was too busy making money to be bothered; lip service in many cases fit the bill just fine.

Moreover, NGOs often competed with each other for airspace while, in some cases, programmes were played off each other by indifferent or biased clothing executives. A haze covered the industry and many struggled to see through the smoke and obfuscation.

For sure, the causes were admirable; industry practices had to be changed. But for all the pressuring of the industry, it took a virus, not lobbying, to pave the way for these groups to affect change.

Remaining relevant

If NGOs wish to remain relevant – and productive – they need to press their case now. The industry reset button has already been pushed. And many companies have drawn up plans on how they will restart in the wake of the contagion.

Of course, many of these plans will call for short, medium, and long term goals and objectives. And I think it's premature to call fast fashion dead. It won't die; it'll just evolve.

For all those manufacturers in places like Bangladesh, they learned a painful lesson during the outbreak about how brands wield power in the industry. Unless NGOs press their case now, many brands will simply return to their old ways of operating.

And guess what? They may get away with it. The money motive, simple economics, will work in their favour. It's funny how greed often comes out ahead of ethics or morality.

Now I don't think NGOs should function as policemen in the industry. Still, I do feel they can provide a valuable service by creating guardrails that help companies to avoid running off the road or retracing old trails that got the industry into trouble in the first place.

Much of this is common sense. Factory audits, for instance, may check a box for brands and provide the necessary cover. Still, it's so much smoke if, for example, a foreign factory simply switches out underage workers when auditors come knocking. There should be a concerted effort by both suppliers and buyers – with coaching by NGOs – to build a better industry for all. It's time to clear the air and get back to work with sustainable goals and realistic objectives.

A shell game

Allow me to provide an example: organic cotton – the ultimate cover for any brand. Only one percent, let me state that again: just one percent of all cotton grown in the world is genuinely organic cotton. But look at the stores: everything seems to contain organic cotton, or so their hand tags would say. How and why is that?

It's a bait and switch distraction away from the realities of the supply chain – a way to cover up labour abuses in both foreign factories and in the fields.

Remember the slave labour allegations in Xinjiang, China? Well, guess what: it turned out to be true. Aggressive investigations by NGOs showed such abuses to be taking place. Imagine that. And Xinjiang grows lots of "organic" cotton.

Wake up, everyone! Snap out of it! Global supply chains fed by disinformation are not only unethical but outright immoral. Remember Rana Plaza? How many more of those are scattered throughout global supply chains? It's time for NGOs to call bu@&#%it.

Here's another example. When considering sustainability, eliminate the term "neutrality" from the industry lexicon. Think about it: carbon-neutral, cost-neutral, and so forth. There's nothing neutral about these things at all.

I'm sorry, shipping products halfway around the world emits real carbon pollution and feeds a wasteful industry. To claim one has an "offset" for carbon emissions is worse than off-balance sheet accounting. It's a shell game.

That's all it amounts to when I hear some companies claim that they've offset their carbon emissions. Great, I'll plant a tree in my back yard, and we'll call it a day.

When you dig into the details, it becomes clear that "neutrality" is anything but neutral; it's an empty term to cover up bad behaviour. And why? Because the perpetrators can get away with it.

That has to change.

It's time for NGOs to step up

Again, the profit motive is powerful. For NGOs, they need to step up their game, or the trade will go back to its old ways of doing business.

How about another example? I can't tell you how many times I've read or heard about some mill claiming to save a million litres of water a year in its production only to realise than a million litres is the equivalent of just a few hours of production. The number sounds big, but the reality is small. There's no context. It's just empty marketing.

Enough already. For NGOs, now's the time for you to shine. Take the lead. Seize the initiative. An industry needs you. Fast fashion may come back with a fury. And if it does, it's time to end that practice, help the planet, support workers, and legitimate businesses. You can do it.

I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore! And NGOs: you shouldn't either! Grab the opportunity.