We need to do better. We need a complete "industry reset". We "cannot go back to the way things were before". I hear all of these sentiments and read about them each day on my various social media feeds. Part of me thinks, "yes, we must strive for a better industry". I also agree that the events of the past few months have exposed huge fault lines within our sector, not least of which is the unequal relationship between buyer and supplier.
In some ways, then, I go along with calls for a different type of apparel and textile industry beyond Covid-19. We must all strive to be the best we can possibly be and I share the natural instincts of many to hope that something good and positive can come out of such a difficult and, in many cases, tragic period of history.
At the same time, there is a nagging feeling in the back of my mind. What does a "better" industry actually mean? More pertinently, on a practical level, what does it mean for RMG manufacturers in Bangladesh? Until we have clear answers to these questions, there will be anxiety among myself and my peers with regards to how any kind of industry reset might impact us and our workers.
If an industry reset means an improvement to purchasing practices, that would certainly be a welcome step forward. The past few months, in which we have seen public rows between brands, industry trade bodies and suppliers, have not helped anybody in our sector. Such rows cannot be repeated moving forwards.
More robust contracts, and perhaps an increased use of L/C must be the way forwards to stop brands walking away from orders without looking back. This would be a step forward for suppliers, providing more stability, and it would actually also help brands because it would mean we would all know exactly where we stand. Such a change is something we would all welcome.
The concern is where there is talk of broader changes associated with an industry reset. I also have concerns where people say we will become a "more sustainable" industry after Covid-19. Really? Let us be realistic here. The key to sustainability lies in supply chains—this is where emissions occur, this is where so much water is used and, in many cases, wasted. Change here will not happen overnight, as much as we would all like it to. Sustainability costs money (something we do not discuss enough) and, as we know, many suppliers are short of money right now; many are on the verge of bankruptcy.
Suppliers cannot magically up investment for sustainability projects out of thin air. Their priorities are paying their bills and paying their workforce. After that, they might think about investing in new effluent treatment technology or energy saving devices, but they cannot do any of these things until they have ensured they are financially viable. This is not me being negative, I am just stating the stark reality of the present time.
Likewise with brands. There are very few cash-rich brands and retailers at the present time. Even those with money are shoring up their balance sheets after a terrible 2020. There will be little appetite to invest in better supply chains.
The key here is to manage expectations. Any reset we see in our industry moving forwards will be about evolution, not revolution. Many people seem to think that the coronavirus has somehow hastened the sustainability agenda. Again, without wishing to appear like a killjoy, my question is, how would that work? Who will pay?
I also read recently that the Council of Fashion Designers of America and British Fashion Council have jointly called for the fashion industry to slow down as part of a much-needed industry change post Covid-19. The two trade bodies suggest the current time offers an opportunity to "rethink and reset the way in which we all work and show our collections." As part of this, they propose no more than two main collections per year.
I see these remarks as a counter-balance to fast fashion. There are many others who are saying fast fashion will become irrelevant moving forwards.
The problems with fast fashion and excessive consumption are well documented and, from an environmental perspective, a move towards better made clothing would be better for the planet. But this surely must be a gradual shift in order to give supply chains time to adapt. And, indeed, any discussions around this shift need to involve suppliers; we need a place at the top table.
We must remember that the fast fashion industry provides millions of jobs around the world. It has helped lift many millions of garment workers out of poverty, providing them with a stable income and putting a roof over their heads. People like to criticise fast fashion but the business has provided regular business for thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh for almost two decades.
To be clear, I am greatly in favour of a more sustainable industry and I also, like many, believe climate change is a much bigger challenge than the coronavirus. We cannot afford to take our eyes off the ball on this issue.
But, I also think all of us need time to pause for breath. These past few months have been the most volatile period for the global economy in more than a century. For many of us, there is no time to think of resets. We just want to get through 2020 and, those of us lucky enough to still be around beyond that, can maybe start planning a brighter future in 2021 and beyond.
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). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org