Every week, The Interline analyses one or more vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

The pace of fashion and textile production picks up, but fundamental problems remain unsolved.

Evidence emerged today to show that the engine at the core of fashion production – garment and textile exports from countries where those industries are economic cornerstones – kicked back into gear in 2021, with factories in Thailand returning to full capacity. This resurgence is, of course, driven by global demand for those exports – both direct and indirect.

As well as the export of finished garments from Thailand for direct consumption elsewhere, analysis by Business Of Fashion also points to the indirect flow of European brands placing orders for products made from more “sustainable” materials, which are made in Thai mills, and then shipped to manufacturing facilities in India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

On the surface of things, this resumption of industry seems positive. Fashion incurred a serious black mark in the public eye when material suppliers and manufacturers were left holding the bag (subject to cancelled orders and shipments turned around in-transit) in the earliest, darkest days of the pandemic, and the knowledge that the machinery is moving at full pace again could feel comforting.

The reality is both more complex and, sadly, more predictable. While economies in Europe are – again, according to figures released just today – now growing beyond pre-pandemic levels, with Omicron seemingly little more than a blip on the radar, the demand this will create is being passed to regions that are, in some key ways, in much worse shape than when they went into COVID.

A report released a few days ago by the World Economic Forum on the biggest risks facing the planet in 2022 contains strong cautions around an unequal recovery between advanced economies and growing / emerging ones, as quoted below:

“In some societies, rapid vaccine progress, digital leaps, and a return to pre-pandemic growth herald better prospects for 2022 and beyond. Others could be weighed down for years, if not decades, by struggles to apply even initial vaccine doses, combat digital divides and find new sources of economic growth.”

It’s little coincidence that the UK, which has pushed ahead with both delivering booster vaccinations and – more dubiously – repealing COVID-related restrictions and keeping them repealed, has now reached an economic milestone while the USA, where vaccine uptake is still mired in controversy (around 63% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated, and less than a third are boosted) has lately seen both retail spending and domestic manufacturing slump.

In the long run, these disparities will probably not last. While the USA has a more fractious relationship with COVID vaccines than the UK and most European countries, on a not-terribly-long timeline, those gaps will close.

The same, though, cannot be said for the countries that are being asked to make the fabrics and the finished goods that those Western markets want to buy. While Thailand may have a relatively high double-vaccination rate – it’s proportionally equivalent to the USA’s today – it has given booster doses to less than 10% of its eligible population. And as the original story cited in this week’s analysis showed, Thailand is currently short at least 50,000 manufacturing workers, which is likely to lead to an influx of migrant workers from regions where vaccine coverage is lower.

It will come as no surprise that those regions are also regions where apparel manufacturing is similarly rebounding, as well as being countries where vaccination rates are much lower. Of the countries already mentioned as helping to drive Thailand’s booming garment / textile export trade, India has fully vaccinated less than 50% of its eligible population, and booster doses data is not yet being recorded, while Indonesia has fully vaccinated only around 43%.

Despite the fact that 50-60% of those countries’ people are still nearly as vulnerable to COVID today as they were two years ago, their manufacturing sectors do not have the luxury of letting anyone go. This week has seen multiple stories of Western brands opting to fire employees who remain unvaccinated by choice, but while this is taking place, manufacturing workers who are unvaccinated due to a simple lack of doses and unequal global allocation of vaccines, are left with no option other than to return to work.

Those workers’ closest domestic analogues are, perhaps, retail workers in the USA, where social safety nets can be flimsy. There, retail associates have often borne the brunt of the pandemic. They’ve been asked to work unsociable hours, risk exposure to the virus before the wide availability of vaccines, and they are now seeing their hours reduced as stores close early to compensate for an all-time surge in COVID cases.

Stacking those two cohorts of people side-by-side is certainly not comparing apples to apples. As easy as it can be to fall through the cracks of welfare and into poverty in the USA, especially with tax credits coming to an end, the scale of COVID’s direct effect on poverty in India alone is staggering. But there are still parallels to be drawn between the twin engines of retail and production, and how allowing them to resume their pre-pandemic shape without addressing the root causes of their long-standing mistreatment and exploitation of people, will lead to fashion causing potential even greater harm than it did before any of us had even heard of COVID.

For fashion to equal – and even exceed – its pre-pandemic overall output there will, to put it bluntly, be many people worldwide who face mandatory overtime, must frequent workplaces that are both inescapable and unsafe, and who were – by any reasonable metric – paid unfairly to begin with.

It’s important to note that this is a problem that can spread, too. Until recently, mainland China has been managing to pull off a hard-fought but convincing (at least based on official figures) evasion of the worst of COVID for nearly two full years, but now fears abound that its domestic production and consumption could be damaged by the simultaneous impacts of Omicron and a financial crisis. And will likely be people in similar situations to those of retail workers in the USA and factory workers in India, Indonesia et al who feel the weight if and when it comes down.

For anyone working inside the fashion industry, in product design, development, sourcing, marketing, or any number of other job functions that are divorced from either extreme, this may seem like a distant problem. But where the fashion industry is right now – with news being released today that the UK Competition And Markets Authority will be scrutinising material-level sustainability claims – settling for a sustainability strategy that begins and ends with fabrics and shipping, it’s highly likely that we’ll see much more in the way of regulations that equal, or even surpass, New York’s new strictures, which include a provision for disclosing median wages.

To put it simply, the people portion of the sustainability picture is going to come into focus sooner rather than later. And if fashion allows all its pre-pandemic practices to resume in order to fuel its recovery, then those inevitable investigations are going to find the industry wanting.

This is something The Interline wrote about back in autumn, in partnership with Coats Digital, and change has been slight and slow since then. But this week’s selection of news stories complicates matters, because it now seems clear that fashion is forging ahead with bringing back the same pace and volume as it had pre-pandemic, only with significant links in the value chain standing on much shakier foundations.

And while a rising cost of living in some Western countries is going to mean shoppers here paying a higher retail cost than they’re accustomed to, it will be manufacturing workers (and to some extent retail associates) who pay the ultimate price. Again.

Next month The Interline will be looking into what can be done about this, with our February focus on data-driven supply chains. Stay tuned.