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Fashion brands must stop moving suppliers to cut costs, says sustainability expert
27 June 2023

Fashion brands have been urged not to switch businesses and manufacturers in their supply chains for cheaper options as the industry faces increasing pressure to introduce sustainable practices.

Dr Hakan Karaosman, professor at Cardiff University and chair of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF), said he has been researching three-tier supply chains in the fashion industry.

Speaking at the Global Fashion Summit on Monday, he told industry leaders and policymakers: “I’m not going to give you sugar-coated answers but I will give you the honest truth.

“There are some problems in our industry that we need to talk about urgently.”

Dr Karaosman said he is seeing brands dropping suppliers to reduce costs, which can force manufacturers, often in developing countries, to cut corners on sustainability and safety in order to compete.

“At investor level, fashion supply chains are all about profits,” he said.

“When I speak with suppliers across multiple tiers and multiple chains, I see brands switch their suppliers based on those reductions. So please don’t abandon your suppliers because you find someone cheaper.”

It comes after major brands like H&M, Next, Primark and Zara owner Inditex were accused of unfair practises toward Bangladesh clothing suppliers earlier this year.

The report from Aberdeen University and the advocacy group Transform Trade found that brands were allegedly paying for items below the cost of production while nearly one in five factories struggled to pay their workers the Bangladeshi minimum wage of £2.30 a day.

Dr Karaosman told the summit in Copenhagen that brands must collaborate more with their supply chains and garment manufacturers to find sustainable solutions on the ground.

“Top-down governance structures and exclusive decision making are a disastrous recipe for all of us,” he said. “We need to understand plural voices and their representation in decision making.”

Dr Karaosman said suppliers often have effective solutions on issues like water usage and waste but are often ignored by brands, which can be detached from manufacturers.

“We need to ensure emotional attachments between brands and their workers,” he said.

“Supply chain workers are often ignored and not listened to. Even though auditors ask questions, supply chain workers are scared because they’re not understood.

“We need to go out into the field to understand the context and have conversations based on trust – not based on punishment or fear.”

Michael Bride, senior vice president of corporate responsibility, global affairs at Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger owner PVH later argued that “local governance is absolutely crucial” when it comes to labour rights in supply chains.

Bride told the conference that PVH brands source from 42 other countries.

“From my perspective, we are guests in those producer countries,” he said. “We don’t get to go in and run the roads, and so I think you have to have folks at the table.

“I think if you’re going to have an authentic brand and speak to today’s consumer, I don’t think you want to position yourself as a colonialist brand.

“I think you want to position yourself as being a stakeholder capitalist brand that’s integrated in different parts of the society where you touch, including in those production companies.”

Bride previously worked for the Bangladesh Accord – a legally binding treaty between more than 200 garment brands and global trade unions after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory claimed the lives of more than 1,000 workers in the country in 2013.

He said that those working on the accord found around 165,000 safety violations in more than 2,000 factories representing 220 brands when inspections began in response to the disaster.

But he said only two violations have led to legal dispute settlements outside the local area because local governance was involved in finding solutions to the safety issues.

“The decision-making takes longer but the decision-making is better with local governance and local people at the table,” he said.

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