Key Takeaways:

  • As long as fashion continues to take a “blind eye” approach to supply chain visibility, the ultimate human cost will continue to be counted in lives lost.
  • Individual fashion brands’ willingness to accept the opacity of modern, multinational supply chains is holding back the potential of collective action and more comprehensive, region-wide and industry-wide transformation.
  • To spur on individual and collective action, fashion businesses must conduct detailed mapping, collaborate with suppliers based on live data, embrace new solutions and integrations, and build long-term relationships.
  • The time to act is now.

This will be quite a long article. But it’ll be a much shorter one for some, because if your answer to the question in the title isn’t “zero”, there’s no point in reading on.

Seriously. If you accept that people are going to die sometimes to perpetuate your business model unchanged, I don’t have anything to say that’s going to change your mind.

But if you believe the answer should be zero, then let’s talk context. And let’s talk action.

Last weekend, two people died at a textile factory in Taoyuan, Taiwan. The international media picked the story up a few days later. This time around, the human beings who died were apparently ancillary contractors, not direct factory employees. They were said to be conducting repairs to the Chung Shing Textile facility, not making fabrics. A direct employee was also affected, but sustained only minor injuries.

As Sourcing Journal point out in their excellent, objective journalism (which may unfortunately be paywalled for you) this is not an isolated incident. The same facility has been issued with multiple citations covering a panel of labour violations that put workers at risk in other health and safety areas. And similar patterns of blasts and infernos have occurred three times already since December, at facilities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China that were part of the fashion and textile supply chain.

Reader, that is apparently four textile facility fires or explosions in just over six months.

Against that backdrop I’m afraid this is decidedly not going to be detached, objective journalism. I wrote this from an airport in Paris. I’m miles away – geographically and in terms of equipment or connections – to properly observe or do anything about this latest in a parade of instances where fashion’s factories become fashion’s cemeteries.

A photo of a clothing and textile factory, which are increasingly becoming the sites of unnecessary danger and casualties.

I’m writing this out of pure emotion.

Because I’m mad that people seemingly have to keep dying to fuel this industry’s obsession with more – whether they’re active participants in the supply chain, or just bystanders caught up in the tinderbox that the global fashion and textile trade is seemingly becoming.

Mostly I’m mad because surely it doesn’t need to be this way. While industrial accidents happen in other industries, they are usually rare and acute outcomes. In fashion, they seem to be chronic symptoms of a persistent sickness whose causative agents are a lack of visibility and accountability.

Here’s how that looks in practice: the moment these two people – whose family names were Hung and Chiu – went into cardiac arrest because the textile factory that was paying them to be on-site set ablaze, a quiet-but-global chain of events was probably set in motion.

In consumption markets like the UK, US, EU and others, supplier lists, sourcing spreadsheets, supply chain maps, email threads, and all manner of other ad-hoc and disconnected data sources and documentation likely started to be pored over by brand teams who were suddenly asking themselves questions like:

“Did we work with this mill?” (At least one UK brand reportedly did.)

“Did we have a signed code of practice?”

“Do we have an inspection record on file?”

“Where do I find out?”

And the biggest one of all:

“Are we safe?”

But safe, of course, is a relative term. And safety is a luxury that’s continually being denied to the people on the other side of these questions – the ones who keep the cogs of fashion turning, and, in this case, the network of direct and indirect suppliers who support them.

Because for all our talk about microfactories and circularity and robotics and molecular engineering for materials, the majority of the product fashion moves is still made in regions where human effort is sold at dramatically cheaper rates than it is in the markets where those products are actually sold.

That, after all, is where a good amount of margin comes from.

An abstract visualisation, showcasing the idea that the cost of fashion is increasingly being measured in human lives.

And the reasons labour is cheap in those places are complex in one sense, but very simple in another.

Costs and standards of living vary considerably region-by-region because of a whole mess of economic factors, social safety nets, fiscal policies, historic exploitation / colonialism and much, much more. Because of those variables, people are paid less in some parts of the world to do the same job. And nobody’s suggesting that it’s fashion’s responsibility to unpick or solve any of those root causes. That’s beyond your pay grade and mine.

But I said something wrong just then. The textile and garment workers in those countries are not doing the same job – they’re doing a much more dangerous one than they should be if they performed the same tasks elsewhere. Because the other, very binary reason that labour costs less in some places than others is that workers are much less protected from harm, wage theft, exploitation, overwork, and any number of other factors that increase the risk to their health and lives of remaining active participants in the fashion supply chain.

We’re all familiar with the extreme examples here. The locked fire escape, or the ignored building code violations, or people looking the other way (through oversight, malice, or corruption) when early stages of structural failure were on display.

But the everyday examples are just as bad. Or perhaps worse because they’re so insidious and so widespread. A lack of essential PPE. No guards installed on machinery. Piles of textiles placed where they can easily catch fire. Undocumented overtime that leads to lax standards getting looser. Basic affordances for health and safety that just were not there. (At least two of these examples are taken directly from the previous citations filed against Chung Shing textile.)

And they were not there because if they had been, or if the people who were supposed to provide them had been fined more than a meagre amount in the past, then the labour rate that facility charges to the international fashion sourcing market might rise.

An empty set of sewing stations in a fashion or textiles factory, illustrating the relationship between some of these facilities and risk and danger to the workers that make up the fashion supply chain.

So let’s be clear about something: garment and textile work is cheap in many places, in part, because the people doing that work are regularly put in entirely unnecessary danger. Or to be even more direct about it: making clothes is a hazardous occupation because of largely avoidable factors that remain in place because really addressing them threatens profitability.

What’s worse is the degree to which garment and textile workers being placed at hazard has become normalised on a regional and global level. So ingrained, in fact, that the people trying to change it on the ground can wind up getting themselves killed for advocating against wage theft.

Realistically, we all know at least some of this, even if we don’t like to think about it. It’s why codes of practice exist. And it’s why supplier scorecards have gradations instead of just on / off switches. Because the working calculus is that there are some measures of danger that are permissible as long as they’re seen to be getting better, as long as they’re of a similar (low) standard to the rest of the factories in a particular region… or as long as nobody observes them firsthand.

And that really is the key here. Using the easy get-out that it’s impossible to extricate institutional corruption somewhere else, a good amount of fashion businesses have implicitly accepted that certain things are simply part of the background risk profile of the textile trade. Or they believe that they don’t have the ability to directly influence things for the better because they’re just one of several companies sourcing from the same mill, or manufacturing partner, or through the same manufacturing coordinator or agent.

Both of those beliefs are wrong.

The dangerous climate of underpaid, over-risked garment and textile work has been allowed to persist because of two tightly-wound-up reasons.

First: individual brands have accepted opacity as the basic state of the supply chain, reasoning that if it’s impossible to truly see what’s happening in their value chain, then how can they possibly change anything?

Second: because the majority of brands accept this, then collective action has become so fractured that high-profile, multi-brand, environmental commitments have stalled and been restarted, and ethical accords have failed to secure commitments from so many notable holdouts.

(Other industry bodies are making more progress, which we’ll be visiting later this summer with a new, free-to-read initiative from The Interline.)

And this is, of course, a self-perpetuating loop of inertia. Nobody wants to really know what’s happening in their own supply chain, so collective action becomes impossible because individual visibility and accountability is so rare. But that collective action, of course, would be precisely what makes regional and industry-level visibility and accountability the norm, allowing individual brands to move the needle even further.

These loops work both ways. By changing what they can know and what they can influence, individual brands have the power to change what we all know and what we can all influence. And industry-wide change can follow.

An abstract visualisation containing a fashion store mannequin and flames, showing the link between the clothing industry and industrial accidents that can cause casualties.

Tied to this whole-industry sentiment, of course, is also individual hesitance and a feeling that, if nothing’s going to change, then not knowing is a way to avoid feeling powerless. And I get that. Knowing is hard. Knowing means dealing with the idea that we source, we make, we sell, we buy, and we wear products with a growing graveyard on one side of us, and mountains of waste on the other.

Against that backdrop, it’s understandable to feel small. But beyond the individual brand level to industry-level loop I just depicted, it’s vital to remember that a lot of change initiatives in fashion businesses today – especially technology-enabled or tech-adjacent ones – start at the grassroots, with department members and process champions, not just from the top.

So if you’ve read this far and your business does not have full supply chain visibility, from Tier 1 to Tier 4 – and very few do – then now is the time to act. If you and your colleagues felt even a second’s heart-in-mouth fear when the latest in the series of fashion / textile factory accidents popped into the headlines, then this is the right moment to encourage action.

And if it helps, then consider this: there is no other way. Unless your business is intending to shift to full-on verticalisation, owning every part of its sourcing and production network, then uncompromising, shared visibility is the only solution.

How do you do that? Inspections and audits can help, but relying on a third-party, trust-based layer between yourself and the source of information is a tricky prospect. The much larger opportunity for change lies in:

  • conducting detailed supply chain mapping;
  • switching from sharing flat information to collaborating with your suppliers based on live data;
  • embracing new solutions and integrations that allow you to directly observe factory emissions and actions;
  • moving to connected manufacturing hardware and new-generation shopfloor control solutions
  • codifying your approach to costing and labour quantification through approved per-operation standards
  • Intelligently planning calendars and commitments to materials and capacity
  • building long-term relationships with a smaller network of suppliers.

And it lies in making these shifts, starting now. Not next year. Not next season. Because the more brands that don’t, the more likely this is to happen again. And the more that do, the less likely it becomes.

This is a business publication. I get it. We all like it when lines on graphs go up. But body count simply can’t be one of them any longer. On that axis, any additional numbers are too many.

I believe the tools are out there to stop that figure rising, and to do so in a way that’s both commercially and morally justifiable. We have to accept that “not thinking about it” and “not knowing” are no longer viable options. We have to figure out, quickly, how to elevate the whole industry’s supply chain visibility – both with and without technology’s help – to hold that number where it is today.

And that big change can, and should, start with you.