‘Fixing Fashion’ One Stitch at a Time

Friday, July 29, 2016

In the opening chapter of “Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes,” author Michael Lavergne describes the current state of the global fashion business. He laments: “The fashion supply chain is fractured, and the people who make our clothes have become faceless.” Lavergne, a long-time sourcing executive with various apparel companies, should know as he worked in the vanguard of global sourcing beginning in the 1990s and the genesis of the fast fashion phenomenon. 

A spate of books published over the past few years explores various aspects of the global garment business. Examples include "Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy," a perspective of global supply chains; "Fugitive Denim," an examination of the ugly aspects of global denim production; and, "Over-Dressed," an exploration into the morass of the global sourcing business. All good books, but all written by industry outsiders (an academic and two journalists).

However, it is Lavergne’s experience as an industry executive that sets his account apart from the others.  Well-written and insightful, “Fixing Fashion” should be required reading for any new hire in the industry. Part industrial history, part personal memoir, and part call-to-action, “Fixing Fashion” is an insider’s look at the global garment business.

As Lavergne explains, with supply chains spanning the globe, today’s apparel business is typified by hyperactive global sourcing, quick turn inventories, and rapid product replenishment -- all supported by a seemingly insatiable consumer demand for ever-changing, inexpensive apparel. Greasing the pathways of global sourcing is a series of regional and multilateral free trade agreements to expedite trade in the name of lower costs and higher margins.

Long-Time Issues.

“Fixing Fashion” begins with a history of the global textile and apparel business and a discussion of global supply chains from 13th century Europe to the present.  The history not only helps to place today’s business in context but helps to illustrate that many of the problems faced by the garment industry today especially regarding labor rights and working conditions are nothing new. The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh was a clarion call to the abuses of workers throughout the developing world, but it was hardly the first such tragedy endured by the garment industry (The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York comes to mind) and will not likely be the last.

Lavergne then discusses government policies regarding labor standards and industrial audits, a tedious section of the book and may prove to be a tough slog for readers from outside of the business. Even so, his message is clear: with the advent of fast fashion, the industry has painted itself into a corner. Even when the industry wants to do good, the path forward is not easy to traverse. Despite the best of intentions, government action only complicates matters. Audit procedures, as Lavergne explains, are fraught with difficulties, and can be manipulated by both manufacturing and sourcing companies alike.

He goes on to discuss various free trade agreements including NAFTA and the WTO. He only mentions the MFA quota program only in passing, which is a shame, as it was the MFA which established the basis for globalized trade in apparel. The way in which governments of importing nations administered the MFA tended to scatter trade around the globe and ironically did more for pushing trade into the developing world than would otherwise have been the case. Upon the end of the MFA, sourcing relationships already established under the quota program were already well entrenched around the world. The importance of the agreement as a major shaper of the global industry deserves more explanation.

Correcting Problems.

Which begs the question: could globalization have been better managed? Lavergne suggests not, but he does believe that industry should learn from its mistakes. Should the Rana Plaza tragedy, for instance, be seen merely as a one-time event or is there more for the industry from which to learn? Lavergne insists that the industry needs to take the initiative to correct its problems.

Lavergne acknowledges that companies throughout the industry have benefited significantly from free trade. Though along with the benefits afforded by trade have come costs: environmental impact and labor rights. In the world of fast fashion, both have been trampled by many companies in the rush to meet consumer demand. Indeed, consumerism comes with costs. With consumer demands comes commercial opportunity to meet that demand and garment companies have worked diligently to meet the demand of their customers and expand profits. Still, problems arise when garment makers become overzealous and short-sighted in their drive for profit.

What does it take to make and deliver a garment? A simple question with a loaded answer. Global supply chains necessarily leave a huge carbon footprint on the environment, while a global web of manufacturing companies – each struggling to maintain a slice of business with brands – trample over labor and human rights. As the production of clothing has become more commoditized so has the treatment of the workers who make the products. Lavergne effectively outlines these problems: many sourcing people today often ignore the implications of their sourcing decisions by simply doing their jobs by driving down costs, leveraging new sourcing opportunities and in so doing staying above the fray of environmental and labor strife.

New Thinking and Problem Solving.

It’s easy to become cynical about the business, but for Lavergne cynicism can give way to new thinking and problem solving. The book concludes with a chapter where Lavergne shares the stage with a variety of environmentalists and industry experts outlining goals and objectives for the industry to consider. It is curious that Lavergne failed to write a complete conclusion in his words, but by compiling a series of vignettes from others in the industry he firmly establishes that the problems he outlined in earlier chapters are not isolated events and that the problems he identifies resonate widely in the business. In short, there are others in the industry who share his concerns and desire to search for solutions.

Fundamentally, “Fixing Fashion” is an exploration of how to repair the damage wrought by fast fashion. Many brands and retailers fought intensely for years to free global trade from the restrictions of quotas and tariffs. For consumers, the advent of trade liberalization resulted in cheaper clothing and more variety. More variety and cheaper has also resulted in lower quality as supply chains, squeezed ever more by sourcing companies look to produce more commoditized garments. The winners in this system are the sourcing companies and consumers while the losers are the environment and workers in sweatshops around the world.

Lavergne suggests today’s business is not one of weighing the benefits of free trade against managed globalization, but rather the benefits of rampant consumerism against the limitations of what the planet can support and the laborers in the garment trade can endure.

To order a copy of “Fixing Fashion,” please go to http://www.fixingfashion.com/.

Originally published in www.Just-Style.com on November 25, 2015.

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