As consumers become increasingly concerned about the impact of the fashion industry on the environment and society, ethical supply chains are more important than ever for forward-thinking fashion brands to consider.
This article will explain what makes a fashion supply chain ethical, and offer best practices to help fashion brands become more socially responsible and sustainable
What makes a Supply Chain 'Ethical'
Ethical Raw Material Sourcing
The foundation of an ethical supply chain in fashion starts with responsible raw material sourcing. Brands need to focus on using sustainable, eco-friendly materials and ensuring that the workers involved in the production of these materials are treated fairly and paid decent wages.
Best practices for ethical material sourcing include:
Committing to Fair Trade Organic Cottons
One of the most widely used materials in fashion, cotton is often associated with high water usage and pesticide pollution. To combat these issues, some brands have turned to organic cotton, which is grown without the use of toxic chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Organic cotton not only benefits the environment but also supports the health and well-being of farmers and their communities. Patagonia, a leading outdoor clothing brand, is an excellent example of a company that has committed to using 100% organic cotton in its products.
Using Recycled Materials
Another way fashion brands can promote ethical raw material sourcing is by using recycled materials. For instance, Eileen Fisher and Girlfriend Collective are well-known for using recycled polyester made from post-consumer plastic bottles, reducing plastic waste and conserving natural resources. Similarly, brands like Patagonia and Veja have incorporated recycled materials polyester and plastics into their products, demonstrating a commitment to reducing plastic waste.
Investing in Regenerative Agriculture
Some forward-thinking fashion brands are going beyond sustainable sourcing and embracing regenerative agriculture, which aims to improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and capture carbon from the atmosphere. Brands like Christy Dawn have invested in regenerative agriculture projects that support farmers in transitioning to more sustainable and regenerative farming practices, contributing to a healthier ecosystem and a more ethical supply chain.
By incorporating these ethical raw material sourcing practices, fashion brands can create a strong foundation for building supply chains that prioritize sustainability, worker well-being, and environmental stewardship.
Ensuring Fair Labor Standards
Ethical supply chains prioritize fair labor practices throughout the entire production process. This includes offering safe working conditions, reasonable working hours, and fair wages to all workers, regardless of their position in the supply chain. Brands should also be vigilant in preventing child and forced labor within their supply chains.
Offering Living Wages
A living wage is a crucial aspect of fair labor practices, ensuring that workers can meet their basic needs and support their families. Brands like ABLE and Nisolo have committed to providing living wages to their workers, going beyond the legal minimum wage requirements in the countries where they operate. These brands often conduct regular wage assessments to ensure their workers continue to earn a fair income.
Monitoring Partners for Safe and Healthy Working Conditions
Fashion brands must prioritize creating safe and healthy working environments to promote fair labor practices. Following the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was established to improve safety standards in the garment industry. Brands like H&M and Zara have signed this accord, committing to ensuring safe working conditions for their factory workers.
Empowering workers is a key component of fair labor practices. This can be achieved by providing opportunities for worker representation, allowing them to voice their concerns, and promoting their rights. Patagonia, for instance, partners with Fair Trade USA, ensuring that a portion of their product sales goes directly to the workers, who can collectively decide how to use the funds for community projects or social initiatives.
Child Labor and Forced Labor Prevention
One of the most pointed concerns consumers have towards large fast fashion retailers is the hidden presence of child and forced labor in parts of their supply chains.
When sourcing clothes from overseas, fashion brands need to be proactive if they want to prevent unscrupulous labor practices.
Some brands like Know The Origin have committed to product lines with fully transparent supply chains. While others like Outland denim have committed to regular audits to ensure compliance with international labor standards.
By preventing unfair labor practices, fashion brands can foster a more equitable and ethical supply chain, promoting the well-being and rights of the workers who contribute to their success, and avoiding the reputational harm that comes from being associated with unfair labor.
Creating Transparency and Traceability for Consumers
To build trust and accountability, ethical supply chains need to be transparent about their practices and allow for traceability throughout the production process. This helps consumers make informed decisions about the clothing brands they choose to support and encourages the industry to adopt more ethical practices.
Provide Detailed Supply Chain Information
Brands committed to transparency often provide detailed information about their supply chain, from raw materials to finished products. Everlane, for instance, is known for its "radical transparency" approach, which includes sharing information about the factories where their products are made, the materials used, and even the cost breakdown for each item.
To ensure traceability and transparency, many fashion brands collaborate with third-party organizations to verify their ethical and sustainable practices. For example, Stella McCartney uses the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification for its organic cotton products, ensuring that the material is sourced and produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.
Supporting Environmental Sustainability
An ethical supply chain must minimize its environmental impact by reducing waste, pollution, and energy consumption. This involves using eco-friendly materials, adopting energy-efficient production techniques, and promoting a circular economy.
Supporting Local Suppliers
Sourcing materials and producing garments locally can have a significant positive impact on an ethical supply chain.
By working with local suppliers, fashion brands can reduce the need for long-distance transportation of raw materials and finished products, resulting in lower carbon emissions. This helps minimize the environmental impact of their supply chain and contributes to their overall sustainability efforts. For example, Nudie Jeans sources organic cotton from nearby regions and produces its denim garments in Europe, reducing the brand's carbon footprint by limiting transportation distances.
Collaborating with local suppliers allows fashion brands to have more control and oversight of the production process, ensuring that the materials and products are of high quality and ethical standards. By working closely with local suppliers, brands can monitor working conditions, fair labor practices, and environmental impacts more effectively.
Water scarcity is a pressing global issue, and the fashion industry is a significant consumer of this valuable resource. Brands like Levi's and G-Star RAW are committed to reducing water usage in their production processes by implementing innovative water-saving technologies, such as the Water<Less™ technique used by Levi's, which significantly reduces the amount of water used in denim production..
Zero Waste Initiatives
Waste reduction is a crucial component of environmental sustainability. Brands like Tonlé and Zero Waste Daniel have adopted zero waste initiatives, utilizing fabric scraps and leftover materials to create new, unique garments, effectively reducing textile waste and promoting a circular economy.
Many fashion brands are also focusing on sustainable packaging solutions to reduce waste and minimize their environmental impact. Companies like Reformation and Allbirds use recycled and biodegradable materials for their packaging, ensuring that it can be easily composted or recycled after use.
As a part of their environmental sustainability efforts, some brands invest in carbon offset projects to compensate for the emissions generated throughout their supply chain. For example, tentree, an eco-conscious clothing brand, plants ten trees for every item sold, helping to offset their carbon emissions while also promoting reforestation and biodiversity.
By integrating these environmental sustainability practices into their supply chains, fashion brands can minimize their ecological footprint, contribute to the preservation of our planet, and set an example for the rest of the industry to follow.
3 Challenges Faced by Fashion Brands when Building Ethical Supply Chains
1. Complexity of Supply Chains
Fashion supply chains are complex and often span multiple countries, making it difficult for brands to have enough oversight to ensure that all stages adhere to ethical practices.
2. Cost Considerations
Implementing ethical practices can be more expensive than leaving things in the dark. Making it challenging for brands to balance their commitment to social responsibility and sustainability with the need to maintain competitive pricing.
3. Lack of Standardization
There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes an ethical supply chain, making it difficult for brands to determine the best course of action and for consumers to evaluate their choices.
Best Practices for Building Ethical Supply Chains in Fashion
Collaborate with Suppliers
To promote ethical practices and ensure that all stages of the supply chain meet the necessary standards, fashion brands should work closely
with their suppliers. By establishing strong relationships and open communication channels, brands can encourage their suppliers to adopt more responsible practices and monitor their progress.
Invest in Education and Training
Brands can invest in education and training programs for workers in their supply chain, equipping them with the skills they need to improve working conditions and reduce environmental impact. By providing workers with the necessary knowledge and resources, brands can empower them to make positive changes within their own communities.
Embrace Certification and Auditing
To demonstrate their commitment to ethical practices and provide consumers with confidence in their choices, fashion brands can seek certifications and participate in third-party audits. By adhering to recognized industry standards and undergoing regular assessments, brands can ensure their supply chains remain accountable and transparent.
Foster Consumer Awareness
Brands should take the initiative to educate consumers about the importance of ethical supply chains and the impact of their choices on the environment and society. By engaging with customers through marketing campaigns, social media, and in-store experiences, brands can raise awareness and inspire consumers to make more responsible choices.
Adopt a Long-term Approach
Building an ethical supply chain requires a long-term commitment and a willingness to invest in continuous improvement. Brands should set realistic goals, monitor their progress, and adapt their strategies as needed to create a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry.
Engage in Industry Collaboration
Fashion brands can benefit from collaborating with industry peers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies to share best practices, develop industry-wide standards, and advocate for policy changes that support ethical supply chains. By working together, the fashion industry can accelerate progress towards a more sustainable future.
The Bottom Line
Building ethical supply chains is a crucial step toward creating a more responsible and sustainable fashion industry. By understanding the essential elements, challenges, and best practices, both brands and consumers can work together to make a positive impact on the world.
As consumers, we can use our purchasing power to support brands that prioritize ethical practices and help shape the future of fashion.
Of course, if you're looking for a transparent and ethical manufacturing partner, we offer services right out of our facility in Toronto.