Founder’s Letter: An Infection in the Industry

On May 6, I received confirmation that my bout with COVID-19 was over and through an additional blood test, I learned that I also have the antibody for that strain of the virus However, while a test may tell you that you have the antibody at that moment, doctors cannot tell you how long that antibody will last, so I — like everyone else — remain vulnerable. Most people survive this crisis, but some will die. In the end, we all remain vulnerable.

When I think about the effect of this pandemic on an individual, a community, a country or a business, I can’t help but draw a comparison with the apparel business overall. Our industry has been infected in much the same way the novel coronavirus has infected so many citizens in New York, Italy, Spain, China and across the world. 

While the international medical community races to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s no cure-all for what has happened to our industry. It appears to me that our industry has for years been quietly spreading its own virus like hidden bombs which exploded when COVID-19 shut down global retailing.

So many things have been wrong and unbalanced in our industry for so many years. Among the most important, there are far more factories than needed and supply has exceeded demand, creating an imbalance that forces factories into an unequal relationship with brands. Each season, hundreds of denim mills fight for every order from a retailer, manufacturer or brand. 

People are talking about resetting priorities — their own and their business’ —  after COVID-19 is gone. But to truly reset things to achieve the best possible outcome, we would need to eliminate 40 percent of the suppliers.  A future with fewer buyers will only exacerbate the current problem. 

The second problem our industry faces is a lack of clarity about responsible behavior communicated from the buyer to their suppliers. Suppliers certainly should be held to rules of responsible behavior, but those rules ought to apply equally to buyers. 

Truth be told, many buyers are essentially abusive to their supply chain, flaunting their power only because they can and, in many cases, because they do not care about all those people throughout the supply chain who rely on them. There is no reset for those people. There is only a need for rules and a need for penalties for breaking those rules. Everyone understands that and surely now is the time to build new structures for the future.

The last and most important element that our industry needs to face is transparency. When I spoke to students for so many years at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I always told them that the real question to ask of their jeans brands or retailers was “why are they not transparent?” The reason these companies are not transparent is simply because they choose not to be, which is a frightening position. 

For a true and decent industry, everyone needs to get honest, to stop avoiding the subject of transparency and start backing up their words with facts. If a brand wishes to promote their transparency by saying what they pay for their merchandise, why don’t they share the invoices showing precisely the cost of their goods? 

If a brand wishes to wax on about how clean their cotton is, why don’t they show the environmental impact report on each field of their output? 

If a brand wishes a factory to be super socially compliant, then why won’t the brand ensure that their team handle all orders with dignity and respect, which is the most modest definition of social responsibility?

All of this is about transparency.

I hope the pandemic will encourage everyone to use this time to reevaluate their business practices. But I remain skeptical that we will see anyone pushing a reset button or finding a cure for our industry-wide virus. Unlike COVID-19, what ails our industry is a shortage of empathy, thoughtfulness, decency and association.   

What is stopping us from working together to cure this industrial infection and build a healthy future for all of us? We have so many smart stakeholders in all sectors of the jeans business who are happy to work together to build rules and structures to ensure things run smoothly and compatibly just as they do in other industries. The cure lies in our hands and our industry needs to work together to heal internally.

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