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Going Local Gets Greater Focus Among Supply Chains

While going local is a major theme when it comes to the supply chain, education and transparency are a close second and third for companies focused on ethical and place-based manufacturing.

At a co-hosted Sustainability Summit with LIM College and Fashiondex on Friday, one panel focused on “Ethical and Place-Based Manufacturing,” with speakers discussing what their firms are doing to improve conditions in the communities where their workers live.

As for what it means to be “local,” Mercado Global executive director Ruth DeGolia said the concept is “more about finding ways to collaborate and tell a story.”

Companies should be thinking as Mercado Global, which links indigenous artisans in rural Guatemalan communities with international business opportunities, she said. One example DeGolio provided was partnering with an ethical factory in North Carolina, where artisans in Guatemala would make the fabric and then send it to sewers in North Carolina.

Mercado works with companies like Nordstrom Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and Reformation. The company has offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and in Guatemala, where it works with local artisans–they number 600– who live in the country’s rural areas. DeGolia referred to Mercado’s model as a “market-access program.” The goal, she said, is to help moms in the communities by providing both a living wage and the requisite skills and training they need for the work they do.

“Every order has 15 to 20 working moms,” she said, noting that the group can do shipments with lead times that are faster than what is typical with a factory. The community-based education programs involve not just the skills training for moms, but also, with a living wage, moms get help with sending their children to school. Mercado has also helped close to 64 percent of the workers set up personal bank accounts.

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For Fatima Anwar, chief executive officer of Ethical and Sustainable Apparel Sourcing, the concept of local means “smaller volumes.” Thinking locally, she said, is different from using international operations overseas that are likely more focused on mass-production, noting that each one serves different customers. Anwar’s business in Bangladesh is focused on international sourcing and the supply chain.

The Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, according to Anwar, “has forced us to get our game together.” Her answer to how to improve conditions centers on the concept of transparency. Because apparel is a major market for the country, there was a need to take a close look at what was being done wrong, she said. In the years since Rana Plaza, there’s been a focus on ethics and paying workers good wages, in addition to providing “good living conditions,” according to Anwar, who added that it’s easy for factories to photo-shop pictures of the site, both inside and out.

“You need to walk the factory floor…before you give [them] work,” she advised.

Dimitri Koumbis, a visual merchandising and fashion merchandising professor at LIM College and co-founder of Bishop Collective, a curated collection of ethically-sourced women’s apparel, added that as many attendees become leaders and stakeholders, it is important they understand how the decisions they make can be impactful, especially in outsourcing. Bishop Collective, Koumbis said, began in the classroom when one student wanted to do a Kickstarter offer to learn more about crowdsourcing.

“It started with tees. The student raised $16,000 for a basic tee, and then turned to tanks,” he said. Originally direct-to-consumer, Bishop Collective now operates a storefront in Manhattan’s Lower East Side at 143 Ludlow Street. The merchandise has since expanded from a curated line of apparel to accessories and lifestyle goods. And while attention is paid to materials and construction, there’s also a focus on producing domestically by factories that pay a living wage. Some knitters are based in Brooklyn, New York, while the dye house is in Long Island City. Some of the factories call North Carolina home. “The end goal is to incorporate up-cycling of products, or vintage pieces,” the Koumbis said.

What’s more, Suuchi Ramesh, president of Suuchi Inc., which designs and manufactures clothing for brands from its New Jersey location, said companies should consider what role data can play in connection to the supply chain.

Suuchi sources fabric and design as products make their way through the supply chain. More specifically, it uses technology for data tracking on a grid that follows the movement of products in real time as they move through each step of the supply chain.

“Data plays a key role so you don’t make a lot of surplus,” Ramesh said.