Fashion still has a long road to travel if the industry is going to meet sustainability targets set for the end of the decade, and if it’s going to be ready for increasingly stringent regulations.

According to recent research, significant discrepancies remain between the broad spectrum of public commitments being made by major brands, and the data behind them. And while reports like these reach only a specific industry audience, a more stringent mandate for comprehensive disclosure around the processes and parts that make up fashion products is already being set by consumers, regulators, and investors.

To meet these demands for disclosure, the value chain for apparel, footwear, and accessories will need to shed its notorious opacity and become more data-driven. This shift from informal insight collection and self-regulation, to data-backed disclosure, is something we refer to at The Interline as the step from the first age of sustainability to the second.

For a brand to confidently state that, for example, a product is made primarily from a sustainably-sourced fabric, shoppers, NGOs, and VCs will want to see that material’s journey from raw fibre to finished product documented in unbiased detail. And for a brand to declare that a product is ethically made, that brand will need to hold objective data on the processes involved in its production, and on the labour practices of the facilities that undertook its cutting, sewing, and making.

Materials and work, as the two major components of a product, and as the two major sources of product cost (and therefore the margins that manufacturer and retailer can make on that item), have already attracted attention and investment. Efficiency gains in these areas translate directly into bottom-line benefits, so there are compelling commercial reasons for both brands and suppliers to know as much as possible about both – creating the same requirement for raw information.

Despite this profitability push, and despite the dim assessment of the fashion industry’s progress on meeting its sustainability objectives, progress on acquiring the knowledge that will be essential to making measurable progress in these areas has been uneven.

When it comes to materials, both brands and manufacturers have started investing in technology and process improvements to improve utilisation and reduce wastage. At a time of peak uncertainty in costs, achieving maximum value from a quantifiable commodity like fabric is essential – especially when the same uncertainty is having a pronounced effect on the timeline for purchasing new allocations of that commodity.

But the fundamental difference between monitoring and controlling the utilisation of materials and doing the same for labour lies in how those inputs are measured.

Fabric, fed through a numerically-controlled (and increasingly internet-connected) cutting machine, can be objectively measured in centimetres, yards, and inches, so that percentage improvements in waste minimisation can be rolled up and accurately understood at the production-run level.

The same cannot be said for the cost of labour, or how that cost translates into equitable compensation for the people involved in production. Today, the majority of brands base their product costing decisions on subjective labour metrics, non-standardised sewing operations built through trust, and historical, inaccurately-regionalised averages.

As a result, any insight into impact that work has on the profitability, quality, and delivery timeline of a given product is built on unstable foundations. And progress towards transparent sustainability disclosures has completely stalled, because there are fundamental limitations to the labour data foundations that simply will not stand up to scrutiny.

If fashion is to walk the long road towards data-backed sustainability, as quickly as it needs to traverse it, both brands and suppliers will need to come together to embrace a new way of measuring and communicating the labour component of their working relationships.

Sustainability meets science

In most cases, the labour component of production costs are negotiated between brand customer and factory supplier with previous production runs and historical averages as the baseline. The sums of these prior engagements are used by both parties as the starting point for measuring efficiency, setting improvement targets, and for price-per-unit movement in either direction, controlling variables such as market timelines.

In all of these scenarios, subjectivity is unambiguously a negative force. Neither brand nor supplier can effectively gauge current performance or set future targets based on interpretation. Neither is able to negotiate new prices with only approximate indicators to work from.

To overcome this hurdle, the fashion industry has no alternative other than replacing subjectivity with scientifically-derived objectivity. More specifically, the task is to replace guesswork with granular, independently verifiable, standardised methods of measuring human effort across the complex suite of individual operations that may be employed in the construction of a particular product.

The process of capturing these units of labour is referred to as “methods analysis,” and it covers both active or “inside cycle” time – i.e. the time a sewing machine operator spends on the individual operation itself – and refractory or “outside cycle time,” which covers time spent on movements that do not directly contribute to the value of the operation itself, but are still essential for the next cycle of the operation to continue.

This methods analysis, when repeated many times, gives rise to a set of units of labour called a method standard – an objective way of quantifying the work involved in completing any one (or any combination) of a suite of different operations involves in the creation of a sewn product.

In most of the world, these units are referred to as standard minute values (or SMVs), while American readers will know them as standard allowable minutes, or SAMs. The distinction between the labels is only skin-deep; both refer to a set of time codes synthesised from the output of extensive observation and measurement. Both also offer scientific, globally-recognised ways of converting predetermined operation times into the true scope of the labour component of any individual product by combining operations and features, or by building on templates defined for established product types in GSDCost, the market-leading labour quantification standard and software toolkit, from Coats Digital.

Using GSDCost, SMVs can also be supplemented by allowances for break time and other essential downtime, making them both accurate for calculating not just the labour cost of a given garment, but also the equitable treatment of the operators involved in its production.

They are, to put it another way, the future of the quantification of labour for both commercial and ethical reasons. And using the approachable, intuitive interface that GSDCost has built on top of the objective GSD standard, brands and their suppliers are already taking strides towards that future:

  • As patternmaking and technical development expertise has progressively migrated overseas, brands are working with the GSD labour quantification standard to co-create with their suppliers, with accuracy and consistency ensured at every stage.
  • Against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty, brands are making use of GSDCost to conduct pre-costing analysis and to compare costing scenarios – finding the right balance between creative intent and commercial reality, with confidence that those hypothetical cost comparisons are based on objective reality.
  • With only 11% of brands publishing their purchasing code of conduct, and the vast majority (94%) not disclosing a list of workers in their supply chains who pay recruitment fees, brands and suppliers alike are turning to predetermined time standards as the logical way to make verifiable commitments to the payment of fair wages, and as a step towards the level of disclosure required by regulations like the UK’s Modern Slavery Act. Accredited by the International Labour Organisation, the GSD standard provides a turnkey route for brands to take action on fair and living wages.

These examples all have one thing in common: they begin with the recognition that the future of fashion – in both business continuity and sustainability terms – will require the industry to replace historic systems, processes, and subjective insights with new technology, new methods, and globally-recognised standards.

The leapfrog opportunity in labour sustainability

If fashion is to walk the long road towards data-backed sustainability, as quickly as it needs to traverse it, both brands and suppliers will need to come together to embrace a new way of measuring and communicating the labour component of their working relationships. What has historically been a competitive commercial relationship will, as a result, need to shift towards mutual investment and mutual benefit – and the relationships that are rearchitected on this basis will be the ones that are fit for the future.

The simplest foundation for those relationships to be rebuilt on will be objective knowledge – a complete understanding of what makes up the material and the labour elements of apparel, footwear, and accessories.

Not coincidentally, these are also the same foundations that fashion will need to establish if it’s to take measurable action on the environmental and ethical metrics that matter the most. This is an uncommon opportunity for the industry to put people at the heart of its supply chains, as well as a chance for individual brands to stand out from the crowd by taking leapfrog action on labour sustainability.

With significant uptake in the fashion supply chain (the standard is already in use by many factories who are at the vanguard of manufacturing excellence) GSD methods and the GSDCost solution offer a streamlined route to seizing that opportunity, empowering fashion to meet and eventually surpass its sustainability targets.

The second age of sustainability is already upon us. Legislation will merely enforce it. Rather than meet the inevitable kicking and screaming – it is far better to embrace it now, to not only be two steps ahead of the game – but also your competition.

To learn more about the benefits of standardised labour quantification, and how it can be combined with a smart fabric optimisation solution to provide full transparency into the composition of a product, download the Coats Digital eBook, “Change, Connect, Compete: Futureproof Strategies For Apparel Manufacturing“.

About our partner: Coats Digital is a global provider of business critical software solutions which are embedded with deep industry expertise and proven to digitally transform the way fashion companies design, develop, cost, source and manufacture. Specialist apparel, footwear and textile specific solutions harness industry best practice and the latest technology to improve speed to market, efficiency and sustainability, and are trusted by brands and manufacturers around the world.