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Op-Ed: An Open Letter for Good, Clean, Fair Apparel

HONG KONG, Hong Kong SAR — Garment manufacturers have long prioritized worker welfare, yet, for just as long, certain pressures have mitigated manufacturers’ worker protection efforts. These counter-weights have manifested particularly in recent years, when demands for lower-cost production and cost-shifting have led to not just lower quality goods, but horrific, shameful factory tragedies.

This much is clear: a vicious cycle permeates the supply chain. The source? The fashion industry’s prevailing – and short-sighted – production philosophy of cost minimization at all costs.

The picture is not, however, entirely bleak. For starters, more and more industry stakeholders have been exploring the development of “sustainable,” “ethical” fashion. The approaches vary, but may be broadly grouped into two buckets. First, there are the downstream solutions being put forth by retailers. These include Everlane and Zady’s clothing marketplaces that transparently disclose suppliers. These and other downstream solutions have empowered consumers with newfound choices. Second, there are upstream solutions existing at the production level, like Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) standards. These and other standards allow fashion brands to weed out poor performing factories, in addition to providing data points for socially conscious consumers.

Still, more can be done. Perhaps most importantly, despite the positive developments noted above, fashion brands nonetheless lack transparency and accountability. Producers, retailers and consumers alike could benefit from greater disclosure from brands about their production philosophies and processes. We all need to be asking questions like:

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– Does this brand transparently disclose its factories and suppliers?
– Does this brand pay its factories on-time and at prices that reflect rising wages?
– Does the brand built factory relationships through long-term contracts?
– What’s the ratio of the brand’s advertising budget. Its supplier costs?

In addition to casting light on the production processes, brands should build better relationships with producers – beyond that of simply checking corporate social responsibility checkboxes. The key here would be to foster real partnerships – the kind where brands and producers work together toward better informing retailers and consumers, improving their workforces, and reaching sustainability goals. In contrast, most brand-producer relationships today revolve around producers being subjected to comply-or-die audits, a counterproductive approach that creates poor incentives while doing little in terms of creating the collaborative relationships necessary to create real change. As WRAP recently noted, “As social compliance has evolved over the past two decades, one of the lessons learned…has been that constant engagement with suppliers is a critical aspect of ensuring success.”

Brands may react negatively to calls for heightened production transparency and responsibility. Responsible production, after all, is unlikely to be a top priority for many. Yet, such a view would be short-sighted: increasing brand accountability would not only yield safer worker conditions and heightened worker welfare, but also improve profitability. Indeed, responsible production would deliver long-term returns for brands. Improved quality control, for instance, would reduce cost and delays from rejects or recalls.

So, what do we do? I write an open letter today, inviting all brands to join.

Let’s have an open conversation together for our future, long-term success. Instead of shutting the door on the conversation after ‘comply-or-die’ audits, we should consider forming a joint effort to create a roadmap for sustainable fair labor standards. Only through such engagement can we create consistent, exacting products. Producers and brands both want to avoid unnecessary costs and delays – and to create quality products. Squeezing the supply chain through piecemeal solutions moves us further away from the goals we all seek, instead moving us closer to a world of costly mistakes and poor products. Through collaboration, however, we can solve those issues and many others, not only improving quality in the process, but also generating social value for workers and customers.

The garment supply chain is in need of change. We are moving in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. To tackle the complex problems at hand, we need all hands on deck — consumers, brands, producers, and retailers. Only through the commitment of all involved can we avoid replicating the vicious cycles of poor worker conditions and products of years past.

By Carolyn Yim

Carolyn Yim is a third generation garment supplier based in Hong Kong and China.