At DAVOS this year, leading fashion brands launched CEO Agenda 2019. Through the Global Fashion Agenda, they have agreed eight sustainability priorities for the future of the fashion industry. Now, ahead of the 2019 OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector, ETI’s Director Peter McAllister writes that the engagingly presented Agenda is a good start but that more is needed to turn it into a long overdue vision that really drives change.
Fashion needs a compelling vision that draws together all those who are key to the sector. It needs a vision that is clear about the industry’s global potential to drive economic development, that recognises the need to provide decent work, and that demonstrates innovation and creativity.
What’s more, this vision needs to be supported by all businesses along the supply chain – this means manufacturers, brands and retailers.
The fashion industry is vast and truly global. Collectively, it is valued at around US$750 billion with products that encompass haute couture through to fast fashion and workwear. It ranges across extensive and complex supply chains that typically have their roots in emerging economies but whose output sells all over the world.
Its size means that it employs tens of millions of people. From models, shop workers and management at one end, through warehousing and logistics, designers, agents and production experts in the middle, to the mill and factory floor. It’s on the factory floor that we find the mainly women workers who produce the yarn, create the fabric and cut, make and trim final garments.
Fashion is also an industry that draws on significant energy and raw materials. It uses vast amounts of cotton and a huge variety of synthetics, millions of litres of water and an array of chemicals, much of which are then discarded.
Half full or half empty?
For those whose glass is half full we are treated to innovation, design and creativity, for the “latest look” or “must have” product. For the half empty side, the story that makes the headlines is too often one of collective failure to protect the environment or show respect for those who make it all possible.
Sadly, the industry is defined as much by stories of the unsustainable use of resources and of low wages, long working hours and worker exploitation, as it is by investment, wealth creation and opportunity.
While recognising there are environmental and technological issues as well as other factors facing the industry, it is people that ETI is most concerned about – the women and men who work at home, on farms or in factories to make clothing, accessories and footwear. In addition to many who work in conditions that bear little comparison to that of fashion consumers, they are also too often still unable to represent their concerns without fear of losing their job.
CEO Agenda 2019 seeks to drive progress through four core priorities for immediate implementation and four transformational priorities for fundamental change as follows:
Four core priorities for immediate implementation:
• Supply chain traceability
• Combating climate change
• Efficient use of water, energy and chemicals
• Respectful and secure work environments
Four transformational priorities for fundamental change:
• Sustainable material mix
• Circular fashion system
• Promotion of better wage systems
• Fourth industrial revolution
However, while a good start, there are several ways that the Agenda could be improved
Wide engagement is crucial
It’s good to see leadership from major brands and international industry leaders. But, for such an agenda to be successful and not just another level of top-down compliance, manufacturers, designers, agents, suppliers, trade unions and others with an interest in the industry need to be involved from the outset.
Imposing a vision or agenda from the top, even if it is perfectly formulated, is less likely to be successful than one which is a product of engagement with all those who have a stake in the future of the industry.
The Agenda says, “This will require a collaborative effort across the value chain and engaging in a dialogue with external stakeholders, who play an integral role in creating this change.”
Making collaboration a reality will be key to its success.
“Why”, “where” and “what”
CEO Agenda 2019 poses three questions for each area of concern: Why it matters? Where are we today? What needs to change?
This is a useful approach and in a short document the detail will of course be limited. But as the Agenda is elaborated, each question will need to be examined more closely.
- Why it matters: this must be answered with input from of all those who the industry affects, from workers at one end, through the various links in the supply chain, to consumers at the other.
- Where are we today: this must incorporate the views of the industry’s critics and not just its champions. Without a robust and credible analysis of the reality of the situation today the right strategies and decisions cannot be made to achieve real change at scale.
- What needs to change: this needs to consider all parts of the industry and of the value chain. It needs to ensure that underlying causes are addressed and not just symptoms. That who defines and drives change is inclusive and that the share of value is being directed to where it is most needed to address change. The willingness to confront existing norms, and to acknowledge the failure of a compliance approach, or the need to look at the prevailing business models, will be important if real change is intended.
A vision to drive the agenda
To be clear, the CEO Agenda 2019 offers the chance to establish a powerful vision for the industry. Absent such a vision, and a clear sense of how to achieve it, then the risk is that the industry will continue to face criticism as the many projects and initiatives already underway, fail to make real progress at scale on what matters.
The risk is that we will continue to see a situation where partnership is not the norm, where collaboration is often missing and where there is little sense of shared value. The commonly held view that consumers benefit from lower prices at the expense of poor conditions and poverty wages will persist.
It’s why a compelling vision would:
- Include and galvanise leaders in textile production, brands and retailers, and engage governments, labour leaders, donors and other stakeholders;
- Be underpinned by a detailed roadmap that helps ensure that the resources dedicated to improving the industry are working together, with complementary initiatives;
- Ensure that the industry responds to a robust analysis of the difference between what it aspires to and what the reality is now;
- Have clear goals, robust measurement and a way of sharing what works and what doesn’t, in progressing towards achieving the vision; but,
- Still promote the competition and innovation that drives business forward.
Respecting human rights
From the perspective of those who work in support of the fashion industry, it’s important that we see decent working conditions free from fear and intimidation and where human rights are respected. That holds as true for the catwalk as it does for the factory floor.
Across the supply chain – from mills and factories, to brands and retailers – all should enjoy a decent return on their investment, so that businesses can innovate, create value and take advantage of new technology through supply chains that are transparent and accessible.
Crucially, everyone should be proud of the part they play in the sector and be proud of an industry that allows brands and retailers to distinguish themselves, meet their shareholders’ expectations and deliver on their promises. In other words, having supply chains that are held in high regard for their positive global impact.
This is not an impossible proposition. Many of the components are visible already. Indeed, CEO Agenda 2019 offers an opportunity to do this. But to realise it needs courage, leadership and the willingness to look to the long term and seek common purpose. This is the only way to achieve the full potential of this global industry – a shared vision, shared effort, shared value and shared pride.