As an industry we keep repeating ourselves: making the same mistakes over and over again. Twenty-five years ago, the pain was felt in America. Today it’s suffered in Bangladesh. We must acknowledge that it’s time for a change. The old model has overstayed its welcome and outlived its usefulness. It should be scrapped for something better. By Robert Antoshak, managing director of Olah Inc.
We live in such difficult times. It’s like the world has been turned upside down. What worked before is now failing. Darkness has descended on what we’ve known. Optimism has given way to despair. It’s hard to find a silver lining.
Fundamental human rights are under attack; forces of oppression are on the move. Change is upon us – but at our own peril.
The politics of the moment is terrible. Democracy and open markets are on the defensive, while inward-looking, disheartening, divided politics has gained a foothold.
In its broadest sense, the rise of authoritarian-leaning governments has resulted in a political vacuum in global affairs, and along with that, a surge in some of humanity’s worst traits. Think of police brutality in Minneapolis or crack-downs in Hong Kong.
And all of this darkness comes on the heels of a global pandemic! I shudder to contemplate what’s next.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the shocking and irresponsible grip many fast-fashion brands and retailers have on their manufacturing supply chains”
Indeed, such changes hold profound implications for society, but also for our industry. For at least a generation, all we’ve known as a global society is growth, prosperity, and consumption. Sure, the system wasn’t perfect. There were bumps in the road. Remember the financial crash of 2008?
Somehow, along the way, seeds were planted that have led to the problems of today. Of course, it’s folly to think that anyone could have predicted a global pandemic in 2020. Many felt a pandemic was possible, but no-one could say with certainty when such a calamity could occur.
But beyond the pandemic, the political and economic problems we face today have long been in the making – and the consequences are frightening.
Nevertheless, whether we blame the pandemic or politics, the global economy is hurting. These macro forces will directly affect our industry in ways we haven’t begun to understand yet. From an economic perspective, it’s hard to know whether we’ve hit the bottom, if we have farther to fall, or if a recovery is just around the corner.
At the moment, the economy and the mechanisations of business have seized up – with profound implications for our industry. In the purest sense: selling garments will never be the same.
Even so, the apparel industry, with its extensive reach into consumer society, provides us with an excellent prism from which to view where we are now and where we could be in the future.
The case of Mostafiz Uddin
Redundancy. That’s a statement for our times – as are other words such as joblessness, hopelessness, irrelevance, separation, social distancing, and collapse.
Covid-19 has laid bare not only society’s inequalities, but also the broader problem of political and economic inequality.
And in the context of our industry, the pandemic has highlighted the shocking and irresponsible grip many fast-fashion brands and retailers have on their manufacturing supply chains.
Please permit me to cite a recent example.
In a disturbing social media post, Mostafiz Uddin, a well-known jeans maker based in Bangladesh, listed a video of himself crying out of frustration because he could not afford to pay his workers an Eid bonus. Why? His overseas customers stiffed him.
His factory was filled with products no-one would buy so he could generate the cash to pay his workers. This is the great irony of the awful story: with cancelled contracts and nowhere to turn to for buyers of his goods, he became a symbol of manipulation and abuse.
His plight is the exact opposite of all of those promises we heard 30 years ago when the WTO and the benefits of free trade were heralded as the beginning of a new age.
It was all bunk, merely a financial play by powerful multinationals and financial institutions around the world. But it did make C-suite executives and stockholders wealthier by skipping town to avoid developed-world labour and environmental regulations and lower their production costs – on the backs of the workers in Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, and a dozen other countries around the globe.
Another industry publication suggested that Mr Uddin’s image is the new face of the apparel industry. Perhaps. But I also think his social media post represents something more significant: the new face of globalisation, a failing system riddled with inequities, broken dreams, unfulfilled promises, and dashed hopes. In short, an order worthy of history’s scrap heap.
Mr Uddin is an honourable man of many talents and supporter of many worthwhile causes for our industry as a whole. For example, he is an avid supporter of sustainability and an outspoken advocate of labour rights. A gifted orator and writer, he is an honest businessman and proud citizen of Bangladesh.
He has done so much correctly out of conviction, but also at the behest of his customers. In the end, however, he was brought to his knees by those very same customers: an escape clause in contracts permitted them to cancel orders whether he had fulfilled his obligations or not.
A broken man shouldn’t have to be the symbol of a broken system.
This has happened before
A similar thing happened 30 or so years ago, affecting millions of households around America. Many brands and retailers dumped domestic manufacturing supply chains in favour of cheaper alternatives offshore.
When those supply chains were unravelled, and so many jobs were lost, who cried for those people? No-one, because the promise was that all of those textile and apparel workers would become computer programmers.
So, how did that turn out? Did the old American mill owners just close up shop and retire to the beach? Did the ranks of computer programmers swell with displaced textile workers?
No. More often than not, the workers, as well as the owners, found themselves kicked to the curb, casualties of the march of a changing world, roadkill in a rush to find cheaper suppliers offshore.
And now those cheaper suppliers have suffered a similar fate.
It is ironic – if not fair – that many apparel brands and particularly fast-fashion retailers have taken it in the neck thanks to Covid. Deemed nonessential by their governments, so many apparel retailers, until recently, have been shuttered since the outbreak began.
What gets me is that it took an unseen force, a virus, to shake the system to its core and expose its exploitative nature at its most fundamental level.
And now – to add insult to injury – many of these retailers, who recently opened their doors thanks to a lifting of Covid restrictions, were met not with shoppers, but with looters. A sad and undeserved fate. A statement of our times.
The demise of textiles
About 25 years ago or so, early one morning, I was meeting at an American textile mill when a brigade of agents from the mill’s principal lender descended on the operation. Their mission: to shut it down. Liquidate it. Fire everyone. The mill owners had defaulted on their debt.
All employees had to gather their things and leave the premises. Immediately. Hundreds of employees within an hour were gone, never to return to the place. The doors were locked. The mill shuttered forever. All assets were then quickly liquidated.
Today, the mill’s former corporate headquarters is now part of a shopping mall. Another irony, I suppose. I need to check if that mall is still operating. Or has that mall now been made redundant like so many others in the US?
The point of my story: the pain in our industry goes deep. Affects lots of people. And it doesn’t matter which country; the pain writhes through the history of our global society. All those people: they’re now gone, casualties of a system.
We keep repeating ourselves: making the same mistakes over and over again. Twenty-five years ago, the pain was felt in America. Today it’s suffered in Bangladesh. As an industry, as a society, have we failed to learn anything during that time?
And what about tomorrow?
What we should do is acknowledge that it’s time for a change in our industry. The old model has overstayed its welcome and outlived its usefulness. It should be scrapped for something better.
A good start would be to honour customer-client contracts. If something goes wrong for some unforeseen circumstances (like a global pandemic and large-scale economic disruptions), the parties should work together, not at odds. Customers should not be allowed to abandon their suppliers. It’s not ethical, and it’s just wrong.
The profit motive
A curious quirk of capitalism is greed. It’s the grease that spins the gears of the system. In turn, greed goes hand-in-hand with the profit motive.
Put another way: producing goods as cheaply as possible is really a different way of squeezing profit from other people’s labour. The more successful the squeezing, the more benefit for buyers of those products. The higher the greed.
For many brands and retailers, the profit motive, mainly when businesses are built on their ability to source from the lowest cost suppliers possible, is a Catch-22. Of course, brands and retailers are entitled to make a profit. Duh, that’s how they stay in business. But at what human cost?
Profits versus ethics
When taken to an extreme, the relationship between buyers and suppliers becomes a one-way street that favours the buyer. And that’s when brands and retailers should question their ethics.
However, the argument in response made by some fast-fashion retailers goes something like this: we search for cheap products so we can offer more products for better prices to the benefit of our customers.
Honestly, that’s hogwash. It’s a self-serving mechanism for retailers to maximise profits by selling more stuff to people who don’t need it in the first place.
Another argument perpetuated by some fast-fashion retailers in developed countries is job creation. Look at all the jobs they create. That’s true, but so many of these jobs only pay a minimum wage or are solely based on commission incentives. These are not living wages.
Selling stuff they don’t need
Whatever it takes to bring consumers into the stores to mindlessly buy more crap. Stuff they don’t need. And that’s been the mantra for fast-fashion retailers over the last 30 years: selling stuff consumers don’t need. Over-consume, for a low price. Only the price has hurt millions around the world, hammered the planet, and appealed to the basest of instincts in the human condition: greed.
Fortunately, some advocates have seen through the fraudulent nature of the globalised retail model. They work for dozens of NGOs around the world. In fact, unless there were terrible problems to solve – be it pollution, labour rights, or other issues that plague our industry – then there wouldn’t be a need for NGOs.
I’ll rejoice the day when NGOs are surplus to requirement – because they will have won. They will have tamed a system that encourages over-production, excessive consumption, labour abuses, and environmental calamity.
After all, as governments have said, retailers are non-essential. And fashion, despite its creative attributes, is not an essential human endeavour in and of itself. Fast-fashion needs to be relegated to the slag heap of history – a proper place for a system that relates so well with landfills and disposable refuse.
But what makes this tale all the more relevant are the times in which we live. Rapid technological change, a pandemic, broken politics, social strife: it’s not some dystopian future. It’s now. And our industry will have to figure out a way to muddle through.
More significantly, however, is how our industry may learn from its past mistakes, tear out the roots from bad seeds planted so long ago, and plan for a better, more equitable – and more sustainable – future.