Why it’s Time to Reimagine Fashion’s Global Value Chains

What does the future of the value chain look like? Auret van Heerden, international human and labour rights expert, details how he hopes the future of the fashion industry will shift to a more localised system, in light of coronavirus and climate change.

When I talk to people in the fashion industry they often confide that what they are doing is unsustainable. I feel like starting an association for recovering fashion victims. They know that it’s taking too much land, too much water and energy, and leaving too much waste. They are even running out of labour, and all those resources are being used in an unsustainably inefficient way. Some blame the consumer for pushing them to construct these unsustainable value chains, other admit that they conditioned the consumer to behave this way. Both groups feel trapped on a runaway train. 

It’s time for disruption. The signs are already there. Direct to consumer brands are seeing explosive growth. Why? Because they give consumers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Digital natives have taken control of their consumption of media, of entertainment, of communication. They determine how and when they consume those things. They personalise and customise the product. This matches demand and supply. No waste. No guessing what consumers will want in twelve months’ time – s(he) determines what s(he) wants before s(he) presses “pay”.

What can the fashion industry learn from media and entertainment and e-commerce? Reconfigure your business model to respond to consumers need to personalise and customise the product, and to determine the consumer experience. Stop trying to dictate the time and place and form of the consumer experience. Give back control. Before Henry Ford atomised production into small, repetitive and meaningless tasks, the consumer and producer would come together to define the product, co-create it if you will. The consumer described what she wanted or needed. The artisan turned that into a creation. The experience was fulfilling for both of them. We need to recapture that element of self-realisation in the process of satisfying consumer needs. As it stands, the act of consuming fashion has been deformed and de-humanised beyond recognition.

How do we re-unite conception and execution in the value chain of fashion? Not everyone can afford the time and the cost of working with a tailor to co-create their fashion (much as they would love to). New digital technologies are available to knit, print, bond and stitch materials together in infinite variety. Some of those technologies have been around for a long time. Dai Fujiwara and Issey Miyake’s APOC (a piece of cloth) programme rethought the process of fashion 20 years ago, allowing them to custom-make and fit articles in-store. Not only were they 15 years ahead of the athleisure trend, they recreated the experience of a customer working with an artisan to co-create a fashion item. 

The e-commerce platforms will demand shorter supply chains as well. Amazon already owns 66 fashion brands, and since they can never warehouse enough stock, they will inevitably create an always-on supply chain capable of dealing with order quantities of one. Consumers will customise and personalise an order on their phones during their morning commute and expect delivery the next day, if not sooner. Cognitive computers will handle the order and programme the digital machinery to produce that piece. Highly skilled workers will operate the machines. This is already happening in Industry 4.0 facilities like the Hugo Boss factory in Izmir. That kind of agility will allow them to offer suits that will be made to measure, on demand, but at scale.

So where does that leave garment exporting countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia or Ethiopia that are a long way, and a long time, from major markets? They import fabric (mostly from China) to cut and sew garments on 90-120 day lead times. That may have worked under the old system of push supply chains and 9-12 month product cycles, but it cannot last in the era of responsive retailing. Besides, the idea of shunting materials in various stages of transformation from one hemisphere to the next just to deliver a blank T-shirt no longer makes any sense. Mass production of season-less basics will always be required, but the logistics footprint will change as consumers engage in more conscious consumption.

The time to market considerations implicit in responsive retailing will favour proximity sourcing, and environmental factors will shorten the distance traveled by even the most basic items. Apparel exporting countries would do well to examine the logic of their product categories and the markets they serve. The labour or tariff cost advantages that they once enjoyed will not give them comparative advantage in the future. Data driven brands already know that saving time is worth more than the savings on cheap labour and as apparel sourcing becomes more data driven it will lead to major reconfiguration of the global value chain anyway.  

Short, local value chains are inevitable. They avoid the disruption of natural disasters that climate change will wreck on us with increasing frequency. They avoid epidemics and political upheavals. They reduce the environmental footprint of global production networks and the abuse of human rights that accompanies zero-sum sourcing. But most importantly they bring producers and consumers together again in a meaningful exchange. They make it human.

If Covid-19 teaches us anything, it should be that life is too short to live it without meaning. We urgently need to put meaning back into how we work and how we consume, together. 


Read Auret’s take on how Covid-19 has helped to expose fashion’s flaws.

See Fashion Roundtable founder Tamara Cincik’s take on how Covid-19 may radically reshape the British Fashion Industry

See how Jo Becker hopes imagination can change our perspective on climate change.