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Why People Should Be Central to Your Sustainability Story

Unlike the majority of consumer goods, which have drastically reduced the need for human involvement through fully mechanized production processes, the apparel and soft goods industries will always require multiple human hands throughout the production process.

If your brand’s sustainability story isn’t focused on your supply chain, and the people at the heart of that, you are not telling the right story. The cheapest production route is no longer affordable, nor a sound business plan.

In 2020, consumers are placing more value than ever on sustainable, transparent brands that align with their values—and making their purchasing decisions based on this criteria too. Consumer access to, and demand for, supply chain transparency is ever-increasing, especially among the growing consumer base of millennials and Gen Z.

According to the 2019 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, “42 percent of millennials said they have begun or deepened a business relationship because they perceive a company’s products or services to have a positive impact on society and/or the environment.”

The old reasons for keeping your supply chain opaque are gone (competition and exclusivity, to name a few). Today, the industry can actually benefit greatly from increased transparency and resource sharing. Brands who work with the same factories have collective power to drastically improve conditions, strengthen product consistency, and ensure reliable output. The healthier your factory network is, the less risk you incur.

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An ethical supply chain makes your operations more stable. Factory closures (due to loss of business, inability to pay workers, and government shutdowns due to violations) create inconsistencies in your supply chain that ultimately cost exponentially more when customers are disappointed and churn. Worse, they often take to social media to voice their displeasure with the brand, amplifying the negative impact.

Where to start?

Brands can no longer stop at manufacturer certification without digging deeper and seeking full transparency on factories producing their products. Check out resources like Sourcemap to get a clearer picture of your network. Future-proofing your business means taking a proactive assessment of all points in your supply chain to mitigate risks. Applying and consistently enforcing a code of conduct will protect you from whistleblower investigations and brand shaming that results in a tarnished brand image and customer disengagement.

The process of digging into your supply chain might uncover imminent risks that you were not aware of and can proactively diminish or eliminate all together. Factory auditing and documentation are essential. Certifications like SA8000 from Social Accountability International, Fair Wear Foundation, and WRAP Compliance are a great place to start looking. As an absolute baseline, factories need to be able to certify that they do not condone or support slavery and human trafficking. Without visibility into all of your factories, the risk for these human rights violations is, unfortunately, quite possible.

In addition to ensuring stability within your supply chain, you will also be promoting stability and growth internally. Having an ethical and transparent supply chain helps your organization to attract the best candidates and greatly improves employee retention. Ensuring your sub-contracted laborers are fairly compensated, ethically treated, and provided with safe and healthy working conditions, shows your corporate employees that you value their work as well.

With ethical fashion brands like Nisolo and Able launching campaigns like the #LowestWageChallenge, brands cannot afford to be blindsided if their consumers target them demanding transparent information. Having an ethical supply chain should be a proactive move on your part, and never reactive. You want to be able to show you took the initiative to clean up your act, and are not just responding to crisis once it surfaces. This will give you a conversation to start with your consumers so that they are part of the journey and respect you for taking steps to do the right thing.

Communication with stakeholders is critical: talk about where you are and continually iterate on where you want to go while revealing your discoveries as you evolve and improve. Your transparency will be appreciated and your message will be valued for its honesty, not its perfection.

To be talking about sustainability in 2020, you must have a triple bottom line approach (people, planet, profit). Sustainability claims with only eco-friendly (planet) efforts miss out on the ethical (people) impact, and profitability will eventually suffer. An unethical supply chain is no longer a cost-saver, but rather a very expensive risk that is unappealing to investors, shareholders, and consumers. Take proactive action and consumer engagement, brand loyalty, and business longevity will follow.

After more than a decade working alongside top fashion designers in NYC and witnessing the environmental and social injustices up and down the supply chain, Rebecca began her M.B.A in Sustainable Management and joined, a purpose-driven strategy and communications firm, as a Senior Consultant. She helps brands and manufacturers understand, manage and improve their social and environmental impact.