Sustainable Supply Chains Needed in the Garment Industry; research conducted by Dr. Mark Anner
The Center recently featured Dr. Mark Anner, professor of Labor and Employment Relations and director for the Center for Global Workers’ Rights, who gave an eye-opening presentation titled, “Global Supply Chains, COVID-19, and the Sustainability Challenge in Apparel,” regarding the worsening conditions for garment workers throughout this past year. The video of the presentation and comments is available here.
Dr. Anner began with a brief overview of the apparel industry and economic forces that shape its supply chains. According to Anner, one of the myths surrounding the "Asian Tigers", Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan is that one can catalyze industrialization and promote development through garment manufacturing. However, the overcapacity resulting from the increasing number of competitors has led to overconsumption, lower retail prices, and a rise in fast fashion.
Dr. Anner’s research documents the decline in working conditions that parallels suppliers’ need to constantly lower prices in order to keep up with fast fashion. In all of the countries he surveyed, none had a prevailing wage exceeding fifty percent of the living wage. Furthermore, work expectations intensified as wages dropped. For example, garment workers in India reported a seventy-two hour work week and ever-increasing hourly production targets. As these targets become less realistic, Dr. Anner finds, abuse of workers escalates, including gender-based violence.
Dr. Anner finds that the onset of COVID-19 created a humanitarian crisis in some garment producing countries, like Bangladesh. Developing countries were thrown into crisis as $40 billion worth of retail orders were cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic. This led to alarming consequences for suppliers. In Bangladesh, of buyers who cancelled orders, seventy-two percent did not repay suppliers for the upfront raw materials costs and ninety-one percent refused payment for production costs. The result was a “triple-squeeze” on garment suppliers through the form of lower order volumes, lower prices, and delayed payment terms. Looking ahead, Dr. Anner noted that the situation remains daunting, as large buyers continue to consolidate and increase leverage over suppliers.
However, Dr. Anner suggested that all is not lost in the fight to balance protecting peoples’ livelihoods and the environment. He proposes two pieces that could be part of a solution:
To reconcile the industry’s environmental impact, high-quality goods should be produced. By decreasing disposability and increasing prices, overconsumption, excess waste, and worker exploitation could decline.
The implementation of an eight-hour work day, lower production targets, and a living wage, workers will experience more just treatment. When combined, these ideas will maintain the level of work available while decreasing levels of mistreatment of people and planet. Though there remains much work to be done, researchers like Dr. Mark Anner remind us that solutions are out there and change is possible.
If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Mark Anner’s work, you can read his reports “Leveraging Desperation: Apparel Brands’ Purchasing Practices during Covid-19” and “Abandoned?: The Impact of Covid-19 on Workers and Businesses at the Bottom of Global Garment Supply Chains” or access his contact information here.