The past two decades have seen the onward march of the corporate social responsibility agenda in the global apparel industry. "People are our most important asset," brands will tell us at any given opportunity. Every brand—even the laggards—go to great lengths in their annual sustainability reports to speak about the importance of their business partners (suppliers) and how much they value the workers who make their clothing.
We can all argue as much as we like about which brands have been telling the truth on these issues, and which ones have simply been saying these things for PR.
What is certain, however, is that now is the time that these words and promises are being put to the test right across the globe. It's time for brands to match their rhetoric with actions.
One of the main outcomes of the coronavirus crisis is that it is the most vulnerable that have been hit the hardest. Some estimates suggest that nearly half of the global workforce in the informal sector, totalling 1.6 billion workers, could be in imminent danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. Millions of these people work in the garment sector where margins are very low and where many businesses are often just a couple of cancelled orders away from going out of business.
The world has made great strides in lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty in the past few decades but all of this work risks being undone in just a few chaotic months as vulnerable workers face losing their jobs, a roof over their heads and access to essential healthcare.
We cannot stand idly by and allow this to happen.
In Bangladesh, I can already see the warning signs. Our country has a huge dependence on the RMG industry and many tens of thousands of garment workers are already temporarily laid off and face losing their jobs. Without any other work to fall back on and limited—or no—savings, these workers face destitution.
The important thing to note here is that we simply do not yet understand the scale of the devastation in our industry and its impact on garment workers. Around the world, governments have stepped in during these unprecedented times to provide payments to workers who have been temporarily laid off due lockdowns. For garment workers in Bangladesh, these payments have provided a lifeline, but it is only a temporary one.
The big question on everybody's lips is, what next? What happens when our government has no more money left to give, for that day will come soon; even national governments can go bankrupt.
This is the big worry for me. When we have a clearer picture of what is going on in our industry, when the dust has settled by the end of this summer, how many workers will have no work? How many workers will be facing destitution? Will it be thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?
Will it be more? Such a thought is difficult to contemplate at the present time.
I talked about brands right at the start of this article. We cannot expect them to be our saviours but, given all their talk about the importance of people in recent years, they should surely be going to every length possible to reduce overall impacts on vulnerable supply chain workers at the present time.
I have discussed these issues tirelessly over recent months, but the messages cannot be spelled out often enough. All factories need cashflow and brands should be supporting them with this by paying their invoices in good time. This helps the workers the brands say they care so much about. It also helps if brands pay—in full—for all cancelled and work-in-progress orders. There will be damage to factories by coronavirus, there is no question of that. But brands can play a vital part in reducing this damage, and subsequent impact on workers.
Now is the time when the social responsibly which brands have talked about can come to the fore. We know what a successful business model fast fashion is. But can fast fashion also be a force for the collective good? Popular fashion has lifted many millions out of poverty in clothing supply chains.
But the question is, will the global fashion industry be able to keep them there when this crisis has passed? Big brands need to think very carefully about their next steps. They need to do the right thing and stick by suppliers. What they do in the next three months could have a huge influence on the direction our industry takes over the next decade.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).