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The intertwining of pandemic and sustainability in apparel sector

Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the global fashion industry by destabilizing the whole supply chain. But Covid-19 could not be an excuse to divert from ethical practice or to back off from sustainability, which needed to rebuild the sector after coronavirus crises are over.

COVID-19-pandemic-sustainability-apparel-sector
Figure 1: Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the global fashion industry by destabilizing the whole supply chain.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is seen as triggering a set-back for labor rights in apparel supply chains, with workers left vulnerable as brands and retailers canceled orders. But it could also lead to re-thinking on the sustainability front.

In the Covid-19 era, forced labor must be tackled through stricter vetting policies. Every brand should do a very strict vetting process. The cancellation of orders will delay and reduce a lot of these practices, but we don’t need a pandemic to do that.

We need to start from the get-go and ensure the whole manufacturing and utilization of materials and practices with each brand follow very strict standards.

To navigate the current crisis and position for business advantage in a transformed industry, companies should approach their sustainability initiatives across the following three phases:

Short-term: as an immediate response to surviving the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19

  • Defend business and its critical assets. Protect human capital, financial capital, and supply chain relationships.
  • Manage orders while preserving supply chain relationships. Avoid canceling completed orders to prevent factory closures and impacts on workers.
  • Engage in collaborative conversations and respectful dialogue with suppliers on how to address issues together.
  • Maintain key social and environmental programs. Focus on fewer core activities, if needed (prioritize workforce protection, health and safety, and key environmental programs), and continue to collect social and environmental data.
fashion-brands-cancel-garment-orders
Figure 2: Fashion buyers dominance was noticed during the COVID-19 pandemic as they canceled orders and later demanded discounts due to the lack of a proper system.

Medium-term: as governments reopen and stabilize specific regions while continuing to manage the spread of the coronavirus

  • Re-evaluate all decisions and actions taken under duress.
  • Clarify or revise decisions on purchasing or cancellation made at the height of the crisis.
  • Review furlough and budget/cost-saving measures. Shift marketing and communications to strengthen and rebuild customer trust.
  • Optimize the entire consumer journey with trust in mind (e.g. communicate about crisis management, signal ethical behavior, cater to the need for purpose and personalization).
  • Demonstrate the continual meeting of obligations to one’s supply chain and social and environmental commitments.
  • Continue to manage excess inventory, engage in 3-season merchandising, and strengthen supply chain collaboration. Companies need to find responsible solutions quickly to manage current stock, create space in stores, and plan for upcoming seasons.

Long-term: as governments, health authorities, and communities move past the pandemic, and industries enter a new era.

  • Anchor trust into the brand and practices. With more transparency, purpose-led decision-making, and 360° collaborative communication to all internal and external stakeholders.
  • Invest in new business models and innovation.
  • New approaches in social, environmental, digital, and transparency help to future proof business models.
  • Build an advantage through technology, data and digitization.
  • End-to-end digitization including consumer pathways, as well as enable AI, data-driven decision making, and greater transparency for consumers and other stakeholders.
  • Rebuild sustainability programs for impact and resilience. When resetting sustainability after COVID, many sustainability leaders in fashion already recognize that they should not restart programs in the same manner.
  • Sustainability needs to be an integral part of all business practices.

In each phase, textile and apparel businesses that embrace an integrated approach to sustainability and business stability will emerge stronger. Companies can also use this time to rethink and adjust their approach to enterprise risk and business continuity, particularly in regards to environmental and social decisions.

According to the present system of placing work orders, a buyer doesn’t need to invest any money. Manufacturers need to finance all raw materials and bear all operational costs in advance before delivery of the goods. As a result, clients can alter the order’s terms and conditions or leave the contract at any time without hesitation.

After Covid-19, fashion leaders will reshape what it means to be a sustainable business, with a unified approach that integrates environmental, social, and purchasing considerations into core business practices, with the development of sustainable products as an area of innovation.

Also, it is very important, the manufacturers and buyers must protect the workers’ rights and their livelihoods.

On the other hand, expectations for the whole industry will be reset around greater collaboration, more equitable partnerships, and collective responsibility across all parts of the value chain.

So, in every business decision, the fashion brand owners and manufacturers, and sustainability professionals need practical and actionable guidance to avoid backsliding on progress and to actively prepare for a changing industry. Additionally, fashion companies must safeguard workers, employees, capital, value chain partnerships, channels, and the trust and support of their customers.

safeguarding-garment-workers-COVID-19
Figure 3: In remaining sustainable in the business, fashion companies have to safeguard human capital, financial capital, and supply chain relationships.

According to the present system of placing work orders, a buyer doesn’t need to invest any money. Manufacturers need to finance all raw materials and bear all operational costs in advance before delivery of the goods. As a result, clients can alter the order’s terms and conditions or leave the contract at any time without hesitation.

Even, they also demand discounts in case of any failure or flaws. The buyer’s dominance was noticed during the COVID-19 pandemic as they canceled orders and later demanded discounts due to the lack of a proper system, which protects the supplier’s rights.

In the given context, Bangladeshi apparel makers need to develop a new business model, where both parties will hold similar responsibility for placing orders and buyers will contribute to purchasing raw materials.

In remaining sustainable in the business, fashion companies have to safeguard human capital, financial capital, and supply chain relationships. On the other hand, they have to manage orders while preserving supply chain relationships by avoiding cancelation of completed orders to prevent factory closures and impacts on workers.

Engage in collaborative conversations and respectful dialogue with suppliers on how to address issues together. On top of that, maintaining key social and environmental programs is very crucial. The focus should be given on workforce protection, health and safety, and key environmental programs, as well as on collecting social and environmental data.

Researchers and business leaders stressed the need to reduce the environmental effects of fashion; COVID-19 has increased the need for a sustainable industry. Sustainability is the attribute of not being hazardous to the ecosystem or depleting natural resources and leading to a longer-term ecological equilibrium. However, its primary significance is that it will last for a while.

Moreover, it is of the critical need for CEOs to future-proof their business models by focusing on sustainability. But there are also fears. Its progress will slow at least in the short term as cash-strapped companies emerge from the pandemic unable to fund the necessary changes.

However, challenges bring opportunities, just we will need to act smartly since the apparel business is ever-evolving. Therefore, diversifying product portfolio and embracing technology will be the game-changer in the new-normal regime.

The views expressed are personal to the author.

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