One of the most disappointing aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, which has done so much damage to our industry, was with regard to some of the emails and letters businesses received from their apparel brand customers. Such letters would refer to their suppliers as "valued partner" or "trusted partner" on the one hand, while in the same letter telling this partner that they were cancelling numerous orders from them or wanted a huge discount from their orders.
Thousands of suppliers globally will have received correspondence of this nature—and I count myself in this group.
It left me scratching my head and pondering the meaning of the phrase "partner". We hear partner or partnership used so much in business, but to me it has become one of those phrases that lose all meaning because they are so widely used—a bit like "sustainable".
If the Covid-19 pandemic did anything, it exposed one of the big lies at the heart of our industry—partnership in the true sense of the word is a very rare thing, and those that have clients who truly treat them as equal partners should cherish them. Such clients do not come along very often.
There are, of course, some household name brands in the apparel space which respect their suppliers, which have empathy for them, and which have been supportive and understanding of their individual situations during Covid-19. I have seen first-hand—or heard about—plenty of such examples these past few months. I have seen clients paying for orders in double-quick time, of making long-term commitments and advance forecasts to suppliers, of keeping them informed of their thinking, of providing a sounding board and generally making them feel part of the "process". This is partnership in the truest sense—brands and their suppliers looking out for one another and recognising there is genuine mutual benefit to such an arrangement.
Sadly, this has been the exception rather than the rule. First and foremost, I recognise that Covid-19 has been an extraordinary time, and brands have been forced to take decisions which they might not wished to have done.
But the issue of partnership in our industry very much transcends Covid-19. The lack of genuine partnership runs far deeper than that. There is a power imbalance within the apparel and textile sector which buyers and sellers are both very aware of. Put simply, this is a buyer's market, with far too many suppliers competing for too little business, and Covid-19 has only exaggerated this problem. Whether consciously or not, many buyers take advantage of this power imbalance to their own benefit—driving down unit prices, playing suppliers off against one another and generally abusing the notion of equal partnerships. Few suppliers in our industry are large or powerful enough to stand up for themselves and, in any case, often lack the negotiation skills to ensure that they are equal partners in the supplier-buyer relationship.
In such a situation, the notion of partnership becomes redundant. More common in the industry is that brands say "jump" and their suppliers say "how high?" It has been this way for far too long, and I believe things need to change.
They need to change not because, at present, far too many suppliers are getting a raw deal. No, I believe the bigger reason that we need to move towards true partnership is because this is key to a more sustainable industry. Many of the challenges our industry will face moving forward are far too big to be tackled by brands and their suppliers working in isolation. We all as an industry need to truly collaborate if we are to properly—and quickly—address sustainability challenges moving forward.
One of the clearest examples of why this is so important is in the area of costing. More sustainable supply chains cost more, certainly, in the short term. There is a capital outlay involved in moving towards renewable energy sources, or using safer, more environmental finishing techniques. Who should pay this cost?
If we don't have true partnership, the cost will end up being borne by the supplier. So why not split the bill? Or why not suppliers and their brand customers work together to devise mutually beneficial solutions? When suppliers and their customers work together on sustainability issues in true partnership, great things can happen. I won't mention specific names, but we have seen several brands work closely in partnership with their suppliers on water and energy saving programmes in recent years. We need more of this.
We cannot continue as an industry where brand-supplier relations are, in far too many cases, adversarial. Partnership—the exception at the moment—has to become the norm.
Looking ahead, our industry has some huge issues to tackle, and we need to get this right for all our benefits. Let's work in true partnership to address these issues rather than just paying lip service to the idea of partnership.
Together we are stronger.
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).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.