2020 has been a very hard year for everyone (ok, except maybe the Netflix and Purel brigade!) but the knock-on effects in the apparel world have been catastrophic and the true impact is yet to be fully realised. Many brands have already filed for chapter 11, including J Crew, True Religion, Neiman Marcus and Lucky Brand. We all know the fall-out this has caused within the supply chain. Unfair as it has been to transfer the deep financial losses onto staff and suppliers, it seemed to have been the natural knee-jerk reaction that brands around the world took in order to save themselves.

Nobody predicted such a sudden and protracted standstill and so no secure measures or legislations were in place. The existing terms, conditions and contracts apparently counted for nothing under the chaos of such a worldwide disaster.

The millions of garment workers who have lost their jobs has been widely documented, from reputable news-sources like the New York Times and the Guardian through to fashion press giants such as Vogue.  But the subsequent public outcry back in March and April did some good.

Re-Make’s #payup campaign

Thanks to this outcry, plus the hashtag #payup and its surrounding social media campaign by the folks at Re-Make, $15 billion of the debts owed have been unlocked, globally. But, according to Vogue, this was about a third of the $40 billion worth of wages owed to garment workers at the beginning of the pandemic. And the situation continues to roll on. What it uncovered was something that was already known to the industry: there simply isn’t the proper legislation, standards and practises to protect and guide both brands and consumers. Through a pandemic, through social and environmental challenges, even through day to day business.

Well, it looks like a solution might be on the horizon because the Transformers Foundation just published a white paper on this very subject:

“Ending Unethical Brand and Retailer Behaviour: The Denim Supply Chain Speaks Up” 

For those who are unfamiliar, the Transformers Foundation is the unified voice representing the denim industry and its ideas for positive change. It was founded to provide a thus-far missing platform to the jeans and denim supply chain, and a central point of contact for consumers, brands, NGOs and media who want to learn more about ethics and sustainable innovation in the industry.

“When the Transformers Foundation was created at the beginning of 2020, we planned to focus our first annual report and recommendations on environmental issues. Then the COVID-19 crisis happened. We believe environmental issues are crucial, but the crisis has exposed how deep the cracks in the supply chain go. We have a rare window of opportunity to fix the power differential that allowed brands, retailers, and importers to walk away from their contracts with suppliers without almost any consequence. More than just enforcing contracts, we hope to build ethics and care into an industry that right now seems to have very little of either”   -Transformers Manifesto

The 75 page white paper details the Covid-19 timeline of events, its impact on the supply chain and how the subsequent problems that unfolded highlighted how flawed the denim system was. It ends with solutions and calls to action for everyone involved: from brands, retailers and importers to labour unions and policy makers and of course, finally to the denim lovers out there.

According to Transformers, the report is aimed to help:

  • Rectify the power imbalance between denim and jeans suppliers on one side, and the brands, retailers, and importers (BRIs) on the other.
  • Create consequences for unethical and/or illegal behaviour from BRIs.
  • Provide support and space for suppliers to voice their concerns.

“When a scandal explodes in the global fashion supply chain, from forced and child labor to factory fires and collapses, the media sometimes briefly seeks out the voice of workers, who are well represented by NGO and labor activists. But brands still manage to dominate the conversation, often using cynical environmental and labor claims to lull consumers and industry professionals into trusting that brands are acting ethically” -Transformers Manifesto

This groundbreaking work marks the first time suppliers in the denim supply chain have spoken up — and spoken with one voice — about their experience, ethical business practices, and what they need from brands, retailers, and importers in order to create a quality product while providing fair and safe working conditions for their workers.

The report was written by Denim Dudes contributor and Author Marzia Lanfranchi, the Foundation’s intelligence director, and Alden Wicker, a freelance journalist who writes about environmental and labor issues in the global fashion industry. It draws on in-depth interviews with executives representing a diverse cross-section of the denim supply chain, including laundries, mills, and cut-and-sew factories in 14 countries.

Transformers Foundation founder Andrew Olah and the report co-authors will share highlights from the report on November 2nd. To attend:

Register here

*Update November 17th: The BBC launched a documentary focussing on the issues that hit the apparel industry in Bangladesh, interviewing owner of Denim Expert in Chittagong. Here’s a clip of the news piece: