Saturday, June 13, 2015

'The True Cost' of the Global Garment Business

It’s about time. Someone has finally produced a compelling documentary about the ills of the global garment industry. I’m speaking about “The True Cost,” a new documentary by director Andrew Morgan. His documentary does well at showing some of the seedy aspects of the global garment industry, as well as the downside of globalization. As I have worked in textile and apparel industry for more the 30 years, I can attest that Morgan’s documentary is an accurate portrayal of the global garment sourcing business today. To my experience: globalization is great, but only to a point. When excessive consumerism acts as a carrot for profit, abuses occur all under the name of “just doing business.” Morality seemingly takes a back seat.

After the end of the Multifiber Arrangement — the much-maligned government program of global quotas that regulated the international trade of textiles and apparel for more than two decades — the global garment trade took off. However, as the industry’s supply chain expanded and efficiencies improved new costs crept into the system. Some say these costs are hidden, but as “The True Cost” points out, most of these costs are hidden in plain sight. The industry suffers from a long history of worker abuses, measurable environmental damage, and over-consumption of garments throughout the world. Today’s garment industry is a balance between low-cost supply in the developing world and hyperactive consumption in the developed world.

Indeed, we live in a time of extreme change. Developing countries are growing rapidly while developed countries are turning into consumer societies. Looked at another way, Fast Fashion has succeeded in convincing consumers to buy what they really don’t need. How many t-shirts does a person need? How low do prices need to go? Is consumer demand insatiable?

Too much of a good thing can lead to problems. If you drink too much booze for too long, you may become an alcoholic. In turn, too much free trade, open markets, with weak regulation may result in hyperactive industries that over-produce, harm the environment, over-saturate consuming markets, and leave a trail of worker abuses. It’s not an attractive picture. Although “The True Cost” is a sound portrayal of many of the problems in the global garment industry today, I fear the film fails to offer compelling solutions to those problems. Let me explain.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How Organic Cotton Caught The Measles

There are times when I have to question some people's sensibilities. We've all heard about the recent measles outbreak in the United States. The debate over vaccinations and the vulnerabilities of the general public due to a relatively small portion of the population refusing to inoculate their children out of fear strikes an odd tone about our society, if not human nature. For some, gossipy, second-hand pseudo-facts about vaccinations -- based in the false, discredited, and retracted finding of some old medical study -- live on as established truth. Blame it on the Internet, or blame it on TV, for some people the threat of vaccinations is real. It reminds me of the resistance of some people to acknowledge global warming or the proclaimed wickedness of genetically modified crops.

Fear, however, is irrational. In many cases, skepticism may be prudent, but ignoring facts can be dangerous. In its worst form, fear may be equated to anti-science, and a closed mindedness, that perpetuates myths with results far worse than fears originally suggest. For a long time, I've heard explanations from some advocates that organic cotton is the only way to be sure the cotton consumed in apparel is grown cleanly and sustainably. That's untrue. The majority of conventional cotton grown today follows sustainable growing practices. There is vehemence on the part of some organic cotton supporters in their beliefs, a doubtlessness of their convictions. I don't fault them for their beliefs, but I do question their willingness to look at the data.

Let me clearly state that I am all in favor of sustainable production. We have to do more as an industry to protect our natural resources. For me, though, organic production does not hold the only answer. Even in a good year, organic cotton makes up less than two percent of the global production. Organic cotton yields are low. It takes a lot of effort to grow organic cotton, let alone conventional cotton. For a farmer's effort, forms of cotton other than organic can often provide a far better return in terms of volumes and quality. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, economic returns for organic farmers can be particularly small and the volumes produced could never meet the broader needs of the global textile supply chain. This, in turn, begs the question: if organic cotton can never meet the demand of the global textile industry can organic cotton ever be truly sustainable? Furthermore, does organic cotton have the means by which to balance both environmental and economic sustainability?

A Possible Future for the Global Textile Industry in 2025

Recently, I was invited by the AgMarketNetwork to participate in their monthly conference call on cotton. For those of you not familiar, the AgMarketNetwork is an online media service that covers the global market for cotton. It is owned and operated by Mr. Pat McClatchy, cotton trader and futures expert based in Memphis, TN. The service provides weekly and monthly podcasts of the observations and opinions of some of the top analysts in the cotton industry today.

The topic of my talk was "A Possible Future for the Global Textile Industry in 2025." I spoke as part of an esteemed panel of cotton experts including Mr. H.W. "Kipp" Butts (Informa Economics), Dr. John Robinson (Texas A&M University), Dr. O.A. Cleveland (Mississippi State University), and Mr. Jarral Neeper (Calcot). My talk focused on ten factors that will affect the global textile industry over the next ten years, including:

1. The Environment
2. Supply Chain Distribution
3. Communications
4. Conflicts
5. Hemispheric Sourcing
6. Technological Innovation
7. Demographics
8. The Limits of Globalization
9. Growing Economic Inequality
10. Energy Resources

To listen to the free podcast (about 40 minutes in length), please click here: April 2015 Monthly Cotton Market Update