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Covid-19: Are We, Really, In It Together?

by Jackie Lewis

by Jackie Lewis

Course Development Director, MOTIF

At a business and individual level our current focus is centred around survival tactics and navigating the Covid-19 crisis. The scene we face is unprecedented, unknown and uncertain, it requires us to think differently, think globally and to question the balance of power in current supply chain models and the role of retailers in the future.

Every day we read the headlines about retailers and brands who are citing force majeure as a lever to cancel or withhold payment on orders which were placed and produced months ago. Manufacturers are experiencing real hardship in regions such as Bangladesh where nearly a million textile workers have already lost their jobs or been furloughed on no pay. Now we start to appreciate the scale of the fashion industry and the impact any sudden change in supply and demand can have, not only on the world’s economy, but on the livelihoods of people globally. 

With language such as ‘we are all in it together’, we feel united in our battle with the pandemic, working to protect what we hold dear, safeguarding health, business and jobs 

But in reality, in the words of George Orwell ‘we’re all equal, but some people are more equal than others’. We’re the spectators of a daily pantomime of life playing out in front of us, as the UN sustainable business goals are conveniently shelved or disregarded. 

United_Nations-Sustainable_Development_Goals

However, if we look at it from a constructive angle, we face a moment in time where we have the unique opportunity to reshape the current image of the fashion industry from one based on capitalism rather than creativity, with a legacy of poor environmental and social impact, to a sector recognised for its global significance and social value.

We are already starting to see the industry respond as leading brands, apparel & textile manufacturers and supply chain partners collaborate to answer the call for PPE across the globe; Burberry, H&M, Kering Group, Barbour, Inditex, Gerber and Chargeurs, to name a few, are playing their part in the Covid-19 battle.

The cynics amongst us might say this is opportunistic, but the one thing it demonstrates for sure, is the ability of our industry to adapt at speed, to innovate and problem solve and seize opportunities as and when they arise. These are true signs of an industry shaped by people with real entrepreneurial skills who know how to work and deliver under pressure.

This makes me proud and for a moment I remember why I love the world of fashion. However, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, there must be more we can do together to cushion the blow and reposition ourselves as a cutting edge industry. Surely a sector that drove industrialisation in the 19th century and now has a value of $1.7trillion that supports over 400m people globally, can do better….

What more can we do?

What about the bigger issues, the cancelled orders, the displaced workers; what’s the plan? 

Up until this point, most forward-thinking businesses have been flying the flag for sustainability based on the UN Sustainability goals which include aspirations to eliminate poverty, hunger, economic growth, sustainability and responsible consumption. Have we suddenly abandoned our responsibilities and values in this space in a panic to protect cash flow? 

Firstly the stock, a reported $3billion worth of product, has been cancelled in Bangladesh alone as a result of retailers and brands experiencing a significant downturn in sales or closing their doors. I read an interesting report this week where a major supermarket chain announced it would only pay for goods in part but was happy for the suppliers to dispose or sell on the product, nicely deflecting responsibility for what happens next. Where will the product go?

 

Have we suddenly forgotten about our sustainability commitments, e.g. zero waste to landfill?

Workers arranging garment products at a factory on the outskirts of Dhaka - New Age Photo

Why can’t we collaborate over these big issues as well and look to solutions rather than just advocating responsibility. There must be another way out of this mess, and, in fact, all fired up with the thought of the environmental impact, it got me thinking that…

Most of the cancelled stock was originally destined for either the Northern US or Europe to sell through in the months of May and June is likely to be jersey based for example T shirts, not fit critical and generic in styling. Why can’t we look to shift it out to other continents where in a few months time the temperatures and climates might still make it seasonally relevant?

It might be too simplistic, as different markets have different consumer profiles both in terms of socio economic groups, body shape and sizing  but due to the scale of the issue we should at least consider this as an option. It seems to me that we need a fashion ‘Tsar’ to stand up and lead on this. Maybe I just gave myself a new role, a new sense of purpose, the Covid-19 stock broker.

And then there is the other elephant in the room, how do we pay the wage bill for 400m people? The UN concludes that much depends on the governments of industrialised nations in making targeted interventions to support business both at home and abroad and to quote ILO Director-General Guy Ryder “to soften the blow by ensuring the conditions for a prompt, job-rich recovery once the pandemic is under control”.

For brands or retailers it’s a matter of balancing the financial impact of their own business with the future stability of supply chains. The best we can hope for, is a shared approach to loss, which is fair and equalised.

The best we can hope for, is a shared approach to loss, which is fair and equalised.

We should take time to reflect on the overused term ‘strategic supply chain partner’ in the context of Covid-19. In my career, this is probably the first time that the concept has been truly put to the test.

How we work with our PARTNERS and the industry as a whole during these unique times will set the scene for the future. It’s likely we will see many manufacturers and suppliers fail in the coming months, but those that survive could potentially turn the tables and re-define the balance of power in the supply chain, dictating the dynamics of inventory risk, product cost and their preferred retail partners of the future. A recent report by Deloitte describes Covid-19 as the black swan of 2020, and provides insight on managing supply chain risk and disruption and practical advice on how to get industry back to work.

Getting us back to work, as one of the worst affected sectors will be difficult but is crucial. We must be prepared and ready to respond in a way that stimulates the economy but protects the health and wellbeing of people. 

We can look to China where most of the companies have now reached around 80 to 100 percent of the standard capacity and experts are saying that ‘China’s economy will experience a significant slump in the first quarter before the situation improves in the second quarter of 2020.’

Now other countries are already planning forward and setting guidelines to allow businesses to re-open, for example the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Makers and Exporters Association) have issued specific advice on density of workers on factory premises, social distancing, vulnerable workers and hygiene which should facilitate phased return to work from the 26th April onwards.

Perhaps we are starting to see the green shoots that indicate signs of economic recovery during a downturn.

What do you want to change for the future?

If nothing else, our experiences during this global lockdown have already taught us that we can all adapt the way we live, work and communicate with each other. We have seen the power of the internet, elevated from standard technology to a cornerstone of our lives in facilitating community engagement, policy making, education and remote working.

Post Covid-19, when we are finally released from house arrest and the stores open again, the question is ‘who will have relevant products to sell?’ It’s likely to be the businesses who can develop and deliver quickly and efficiently who will win. Businesses with 3D technology and people with 3D CAD skills who understand digital process flow will be better equipped to respond to that call. We need to accept it’s time to embrace the fourth industrial revolution and allow technology, connectivity and insight to take us forward creating a fashion industry which is more resilient and responsible.

With renewed focus, we should be getting up each day and managing our way through this crisis by contributing and playing our part no matter how small. What’s the use in having experience and knowledge if you can’t apply it differently in challenging times and give something back.

A philosophy deeply rooted in the culture at MOTIF, where we strive to provide knowledge and insight to people in the apparel industry, bringing people together to share expertise. We believe in nurturing the foundation skills while pushing the boundaries of personal development as our industry evolves.

We need to think about what we want to change in our industry, addressing current norms such as the in balance of power in the supply chain, overproduction and how blind capitalism and avid consumerism have devoured our industry. When did we make the switch from creating original products to copying and duplicating in quantities we never needed nor could ever buy and use?

In the words of economist Mariana Mazzucato ‘‘the COVID-19 pandemic will shine light onto societal and economic systems all across the world, exposing some of the flaws of a capitalist society.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will shine light onto societal and economic systems all across the world, exposing some of the flaws of a capitalist society.

The downturn will inevitably lead businesses to restructure in order to survive. It will force us to review end-to-end efficiency in our product design and development processes and sourcing models, highlight opportunities to introduce lean manufacturing and automation and focus the mind back on cost and waste. All solid foundations to drive sustainable business practice for the future. The key will be how to do this whilst putting skilled people back in the driving seat, people who understand the craft of fashion and can move with the times.

If this industry is important to you, fight for its future and let’s collaborate for the better good. Remember why you came into this industry in the first place, decide and drive how you want it to change and what you want from it for the future. Take your professional development in your own hands to stay relevant.

It’s time to take responsibility with refreshed skills and renewed focus!

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