Perhaps naively, The Interline has previously written that the COVID-19 pandemic would hopefully be the most momentous event of our time. This week has demonstrated how short-sighted that viewpoint was.
As we write this, missiles are falling in Europe and civilian volunteers are stepping up to defend their sovereignty far too close to what many of our readers call home. Which marks yet another sentence (next to “the global panic has firmly set in,” which appeared in our first-ever News Roundup, coinciding with the realisation that COVID was in Europe and that nothing would be the same again) that we never thought we’d publish, as a fashion technology outlet.
But publish them we must. Not out of any misguided idea that doing so will change anything, but because profound, historic events will, by definition, leave historic scars not just on the world, but on every global industry. And with most of those industries – fashion very much included – still attempting to make sense of how deep the last set of scars go, everyone’s attention is turning inward, to security, and to the question of what business continuity looks like when the world is being rewritten around us.
In a basic sense, for fashion to keep moving forward, the industry must be able to source product. Whether that’s finished product bought wholesale, or own-brand product designed and developed in-house, and then contract-manufactured overseas is academic; without things for shoppers to buy, the cogs of fashion stop moving.
In that same first-ever News Roundup, we also wrote that COVID was “revealing the fragility inherent in business supply chains – most of which are still resolutely analogue”. A lot has changed in the two years since that short article was written, but the nature of fashion supply chains is not one of those things. Most are still stretched thin. Most are concentrated rather than diversified. Most run on long delivery timelines. Most involve specialised components for which no fallback exists, creating bottlenecks. Most are subject to the vagaries of shipping container pricing, oil futures, raw material harvests, climate fluctuations and a suite of other highly unpredictable variables.
Most importantly, right here, right now, though: most are prone to significant disruption when the world around them falters.
We need to put it plainly: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an entirely unnecessary, wholly condemnable tragedy, and is likely to be one of the defining events of our time. It is also a further example of fashion’s exposure to geopolitical risk, and creates an even greater sense of urgency behind ongoing drives to reinforce supply chain relationships and to build agility in to brittle sourcing strategies that have small numbers of – or even single – points of failure.
In a direct sense, this is about the current international travesty in Ukraine. As other publications have pointed out, it, along with other Eastern European countries, has been a “low-wage paradise for global fashion brands,” despite the region not being typically thought of as a major manufacturing market. And even if physical fighting has not reached facilities today, the people working there have far more pressing priorities than sewing clothes, and the spectre of connectivity disruption means that nodes in at least some sourcing networks are now going dark.
But in an indirect sense, what’s happening this week – and what happened in a more protected way throughout 2020 and 2021 – is emblematic of fashion’s over reliance on stability, and its unpreparedness for interruption. Bangladesh is not at war today. Neither is Vietnam. Or China. Or Turkey. But that’s not to say that they never will be. As a case in point: Ethiopia may not be in the headlines, but its stability still stands on extremely shaky foundations, prompting many brands to look at shifting sourcing operations elsewhere.
And even if open conflict is deemed unlikely in those regions, far less dramatic shifts in domestic policy and international attitudes could easily lead to well-established production markets being suddenly swept off the supply chain radar – see the recently-spotlight gap between wages paid to apparel and textile workers in key markets and the living wage for those markets as an example. And for brands that source or manufacture there exclusively, the effects of an upheaval – military or peaceful – could be catastrophic.
What can technology do to mitigate this uncertainty? From the perspective of direct conflict, the answer is cold and commercial: building agile processes and digital workflows will be key to enabling supply chains that are more modular and can be lifted and shifted in the event of large-scale disruption. From the perspective of slower social evolution, the key will be forging deeper, more collaborative supplier relationships built on a clear understanding of how individual workers are being treated, so that nobody is blindsided by a regional rejection of unfair practices.
As a coincidence, The Interline is hosting a virtual workshop – in partnership with Coats Digital – on 17th March that will examine the supply chain crisis at the labour level, mapping out how brands can bring people back to their rightful place in the sustainability picture. Registration is free!
As this week has demonstrated, nobody knows what’s around the corner; two days ago supply chain pressures showed signs of easing, while today we’re seeing tragedy play out that could easily spill over into disruption to the supply of essential commodities. All fashion can do is prepare for unpredictability on a scale that all of us wish had never been realised in our lifetimes.
So while we keep our Ukranian readers, friends, and colleagues at the front of our thoughts, fashion must also keep the reality of managing risk in a highly disrupted world constantly at the back of our minds.
And the best from The Interline:
Since our last analysis of the news, The Interline has published two exclusive interviews with very different perspectives on the future of fashion, as well as announcing an upcoming in-person fashion technology festival, and releasing a bonus podcast episode – with much to come.
Our first exclusive interview was with multi-disciplinary designer Radam Ridwan – one of the key creatives behind the “Material You” digital fashion campaign launched by Google, DRESSX, and The Fabricant. We spoke to them about the empowering potential of digital fashion, what creativity looks like in an increasingly-digital market, and how technology is breaking down barriers.
Our second interview is with William Green, Co-Founder of modular menswear brand L’Estrange London, which is taking a radical approach to sustainability – not only quantifying and offsetting its impact, but producing a versatile, seasonless wardrobe that’s designed to address some of the root causes of overproduction and over-consumption.
Next month, The Interline and The University of Manchester will host a festival of fashion technology, bringing together a mix of virtual and physical participants to showcase the possibilities of the extended technology ecosystem for fashion. Registrations are now open!
Finally, we launched the “Distilled” version of our first podcast episode, condensing the the full conversation between Ben Hanson and Dan Leahy, Co-Founder and CEO of MakerSights, down to half the time. While our full episodes will always contain the complete detail, and recommended listening for fashion professionals interested in the subject, our Distilled episodes will pack all the key insights from our long-form shows into a format suited to coffee breaks and short car journeys.
Look for the second full-length episode of The Interline Podcast in early March, with the Distilled version to follow a few weeks later.