The last year has seen brands on overdrive with their PR machinery, when it comes to sustainability. A large part of the focus has been on creating the next cheap-as-synthetic, fully home compostable, widely-available, material. The PR firms, on the other hand, are seeing sustainable fashion, as the most commonly sought after consulting gig, available in town. The nagging concern of not coming across as greenwashing their brands, is a huge concern through this ongoing endeavor.
And yet, while there is the regular inflow of information about anything and everything, being used to come up with the next magic material, there is little to no attention being made to the human side of sustainability — the workers, the families of the workers, the factory conditions and so on.
In this article, we highlight this often-ignored element of sustainability and attempt to make a case for why it is a low-hanging fruit for brands, if they were to only just look inwards into their own supply-chain network
Go to your favourite search engine, and type in “what is sustainability” — the definitions available, are flooded with a focus on the environment. Harvard Business School, describes sustainability in business, in the following way:
- The effect business has on the environment
- The effect business has on society
It is with this kind of scope in mind, that the idea of ESG has gained traction: Environment, Social, and Governance. This is an evolving space and while the idea might be somewhat clear, there is still a lot of work to be done on the execution part of this.
In my view, the Social is squarely aligned with the factory operations supported by a brand.
Why do brands hide their factories
As a factory owner, making customised cotton and jute bags for the promotional, packaging, and reselling space, I often wonder why brands shy away from highlighting you as a factory of their choice. There could be several reasons for this.
- They don’t think it’s important enough or relevant to highlight the factory
- They realise that a good factory is an asset, and its identity needs to be kept a secret, from competitors potentially poaching them
- Advertising a factory would mean “free” publicity for the factory
The Importance of the factory
This point just appears so outdated, in today’s context. With an increasing focus on the conscious manufacturing amongst Gen Y and Gen Z consumers, the idea of knowing where a product is being made, is super relevant. Some companies like Everlane, are considered to be the gold-standard in transparency in the field of fashion. They mention details of their factories worldwide, on their website. You can even get an idea of what products are being manufactured there, along with a short write-up of their own views of the factory. There are of course ample pictures of workers with grins on their face (PR at its finest).
However, as has been pointed out in some articles, this is not enough. What does a consumer do with just knowing about the name and location of the factory? Everlane, with its own views on the factory, assumes that the brand will be giving an honest assessment.
Would it not be better to post updated certificates and social audit reports of the factory, to offer the customer a more unbiased view of the social compliance levels of the factory operations?
There appears to be not enough thought being put into this. Recently, I was approached by a European marketing firm, a long-standing client of 10 years. They wanted pictures of people with smiles on their faces, engaged in various factory operations. They even wanted me, as the owner, to hold a card saying “I made your clothes,” as part of this larger PR campaign, focused on transparency.
I think it is just lip-service. What good will that do? What would have been better, is if they actually conducted a zoom interview and recorded a conversation with the factory owner. Let the consumers get a human view of how a factory owner actually thinks. Have an honest conversation — one where there are questions which do not have perfect answers. Let the ambiguity come through — let it be known to the consumer that there are issues which need to be addressed, and not all solutions are straight forward.
The brand will come across as being more authentic and its brand value will be more believable. This kind of approach is just not happening — as far as brands are concerned, factory = smiling happy workers, from a PR point of view.
Factory as a secret asset
Today, you can get shipping customs data, from one of many service providers. A little bit of digging, by an intern at any of these brands, will reveal competitor data in terms of what they are selling, and who is shipping it to them. So the idea of factory as a secret asset, is somewhat laughable.
In an article I wrote a few weeks ago, I mentioned how the Fashion Transparency Index for 2021 reported that less than 50% of the 250 largest fashion brands, refused to reveal their manufacturing facilities. This is baffling. If you are not revealing this basic data, then you have to wonder if the brands are deliberately trying to hide the not-so-convenient-truth of their factories. As a brand, if I have not been particularly diligent about my choice of factories, from a social compliance standpoint, then this kind of data is exactly the information I do not want to share. Merely signing a document about vendor social standard norms, is not enough.
As a factory working with several smaller brands, we have watched them grow over the years. The rewards of sticking with them as they grow, in the form of larger orders and more profits, has been intrinsic to this process. Along the way, we have been approached by competing brands, on more than one occasion. So what? Does it mean that we will surreptitiously, start working with their competitor? It depends on the factory’s mindset. But it does not justify keeping the factory a secret.
“Free” publicity for the factory
This sounds ridiculous, but it did happen with us, five years ago.
A small German promotional company approached us to manufacture some organic cotton bags for them. In the process, we added the GOTS label to the bags, which mentioned our factory license number. When the client received the bags, he flipped out. He took umbrage to the idea that anybody could look up the factory license number, and contact us.
This was not abou competitors finding out — oh no! This was purely about them feeling that we were being unethical by “promoting ourselves for free.”
Granted, such specimens do not generally exist in the larger client-universe. But they do exist, and they are definitely somewhat unique in their perspective.
A Fresh look at Factories
Get to know your factories
Instead of viewing factories as cost-centers which are a necessary evil, a more constructive mindset would be to view your vast global supply chain as your in-house manufacturing setup. Invest the time and money to have a roving team of in-house inspectors, who are checking on factory operations, on a regular basis. This will take time, and it will take money, but then sustainability ain’t cheap.
Engage the management of the factory at a deeper level, not just at a transactional level. If you are a small brand, you know what I mean. If you are part of a promotional firm, or a larger brand yourself, then go find someone who runs a small business, sourcing products from manufacturers, and have a chat. This idea will become clear in the first five minutes of that conversation.
In order to offset these increasing costs, it is important for brands to embrace the idea of doing more with less. Overstocking and deep discounts are leading causes for brands making losses. A lot of times, the order volumes are based on meeting MOQ requirements of “star factories.” There is the sense of being a copy-cat where you go to a factory which is producing your target products, of your competitor’s.
Introduce your factories
Divert a small part of your marketing budget, to hold live or recorded interviews / conversations with your core suppliers or your strategic suppliers. Let your consumers know more about them. Put a human face to the product. Do not rely on the notion of just helping the lowest sections of society, by pasting pictures of workers with toothy grins. Everyone is doing it — you are not gaining much in the process. So stop already!
Re-orient your factory-facing team
A lot of time is wasted as an idea starts to take shape at the designer’s table, and then makes it way through eventually to the factory. Involve your core factories, right at the design stage. Factory owners are not a bunch of illiterate, uneducated people. Redefine your internal processes so that the factories are involved in developing the product, early on. This will give the factories a higher sense of security and comfort with the brand. It will also bring about a gradual change where the idea of teamwork, will reveal itself more and more.
Right now, it tends to feel like that the brands have to police the factories, in order to make sure that everything is in order. It does not have to be this way.
For example, with a few of our clients, we have dedicated Slack workspaces, where we discuss new product ideas, as part of a larger conversation. In doing so, we have eliminated the need for emails, and ideas are developed at a faster pace, in a more multifaceted manner, where design and production go hand-in-hand, right from the beginning.
Bill Clinton had coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” when he first ran for President, back in the 1990s. Perhaps the time is right, to tell the brands, “It’s the factory, stupid.”
Showcasing factories as part of a brand’s overall sustainability message, is a potential low-hanging fruit. If the brands can get their eyes off their binoculars and microscopes, as they search for more and more creative sustainable material, and just look straight, they may realise this. At some point, some brand is going to realise this, and shine in the social media and PR world.