The Covid-19 and the resulting impact of it, involving societal and economic shutdowns, clearly provides the first real test to sustainability in the apparel sector. It has exposed apparel and textile industries to challenges never seen before. Undoubtedly, this crisis will challenge apparel businesses' long-charted commitments to sustainability.
While on the one hand Covid-19 has negatively impacted their business, it simultaneously demands that companies accelerate their progress on sustainable initiatives during the pandemic-induced disruptions in order to be competitive in the new-normal market structure that will emerge after the pandemic is gone. Covid-19 simply cannot be an excuse to temporarily halt ethical practices or to back off from the existing standards maintained on sustainability.
Regrettably, the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted labour rights in the apparel sector, with workers left clueless regarding their job security, as brands and retailers cancelled orders on the face of ballooning losses. Dialogues are in place to equip this industry to re-define their sustainability practices targeting the post-pandemic regime. However, the question is: Why does sustainability need to be redefined? The answer is: In the post-pandemic world, consumers will be spending less money to buy fashion goods and will be more selective and calculated while buying wearables. Thus, for a sustainable fashion-line to have longer-term appeal, prices must also be charted in a new manner - meaning price-tags will see a drastic change. Furthermore, the paradigm-shift on the sustainability front must be coupled with fair working conditions, safeguarding workers' rights and ethical action within supply chains.
Numerous right groups and coalitions in apparel sector commissioned studies, involving key stakeholders, in a bid to scope out the changes in the bedrock principles of sustainability in this pandemic. Those studies branched-out analyses covering economic trends and consumer behaviour, making it clear that the apparel sector will leave a permanent scar if it abandons sustainability and value chain partnerships and transparencies in the face of Covid-19. Moreover, those reports conclude that companies that embrace sustainability will be among the leaders of a resurgent apparel industry on the other side of the pandemic.
Coming to Bangladesh, our manufacturers have made a tectonic shift to ensure best performance in areas relevant to sustainability in manufacturing through an allied front. The apparel makers invested in green technology to make the industry sustainable in terms of environment and labour rights. As a result, Bangladesh got the accolade of having the highest number of certified green factories in the region.
However, after the outbreak of Covid-19, sustainability principles from the buyers' end changed colours as they have deviated from sustainable and ethical buying practices in sourcing goods from suppliers in Bangladesh as well as in other Asian countries. Reportedly, in the wake of the pandemic, orders placed with different manufacturers in Bangladesh worth $3.17 billion have been canceled or put on hold by brands and retailers. Many of the buyers also delayed the payment, leaving factory owners struggling to pay workers.
On top of that, after a certain period, the retailers and brands changed their voice and came up with a peculiar proposal of demanding a high percentage of discounts on the agreed price of the orders. This unethical purchasing practice has left thousands of workers as well as the factory owners in a fix.
Against this backdrop, there are few things our industry-insiders can embrace as a preparedness for combating the new-normal in apparel sector.
The first thing they can do is, protect critical assets to survive the economic crisis, since this moment entails an opportunity to remove unnecessary complexity and costs, in order to prepare for reinvestment.
Secondly, they may solve immediate inventory challenges in partnership with suppliers through open dialogue and constructive partnership across the value chain in order to find shared solutions for protecting workers' livelihood and sustaining trust. One consensus must be arrived at that cancellation of completed orders will be a measure of last resort, while cancellation without consultation or collaboration will be an unacceptable practice.
Thirdly, factories must integrate sustainability throughout business recovery strategies which, in turn, will enable leaders to position sustainability at the centre of post-pandemic decision-making.
Last, but not the least, businesses must accelerate transparency while increasing sustainability ambitions. In this regard, companies must take advantage of digitalisation, innovative business models, and end-to-end solutions, with transparency playing a central role, in order to assess and demonstrate positive environmental and social impact to stakeholders.
Additionally, Bangladeshi apparel makers need to develop and orient a new business model for all parties involved, where both parties will hold similar accountability and responsibility for placing orders, and buyers will contribute or make similar arrangement to purchase raw materials. This new system ,whereby buyers pay for raw materials at the time of placing orders, would be a major step forward. In this connection, the manufacturers' associations, chambers of commerce as well as the buyers can play an overarching role. They can further discuss and formulate a set of guidelines that both the buyers and manufacturers have to comply with.
On the other hand, product diversification and embracing cutting-edge technology are crucial for the apparel industry as the demand for recycled, non-cotton-based clothing goods and circular products and items is burgeoning.
It is imperative to move towards producing meditex and healthtex, including Personal Protective Equipment, facemasks, medical gowns as the future of these products is unquestionably bright. To this end, we should also focus on creating our own virtual marketplace (business to consumers) like Amazon and eBay, to improve the marketing process as consumers are gradually moving towards e-commerce platforms. Lastly, I must say this pandemic is a great teacher as it teaches us about the missing links and how forgetful we are about crisis management. The apparel sector is no exception in this regard.
The author is Research Associate, Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute (BFTI). The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected]