Sustainability in the Garment Industry


The garment industry is one of the largest and most controversial in the world because of human rights challenges. A paper by Stanwick and Stanwick (2015) explains the situation in Bangladesh’s garment industry and, from a sustainability perspective, labels the industry as unsustainable. In essence, the UN sustainability goals of reduced inequality and responsible production and consumption have been grossly ignored. The focus of this paper is to examine the sustainability issues in the garment industry, best practices, and sustainable strategies recommended for the industry.

Key Sustainability Issues in the Garment Industry

The garment industry in Bangladesh faces critical human rights challenges. With cheap labor and a high retail margin of the products, the factory owners are exploitative as illustrated in Human Rights Pulse by Mehta (2020). Many studies have related the problem to the supply chains considering the existence of long and complex global production networks (Shen et al., 2017; Yang, Song, and Tong, 2017; Bostrom and Micheletti, 2016). This is in addition to the lead time and costs dual pressure that makes it hard or impossible to pursue sustainability.

Current research works on the sustainability of the garment industry state that the challenges involve several complicated and interrelated issues. A study by Bostrom and Micheletti (2016) states that the textile and clothing sector is the most polluting one. There are also many factory accidents recorded, especially in developing countries such as Bangladesh (Asif, 2017; Husan, Mahmud, and Islam, 2017; Chowdhury, 2016). These accidents become more deadly because of the failure of the management to comply with the guidelines and regulations governing such events. According to Chowdhury (2016), many managers prevent the employees from evacuating despite the fire alarm going off. This points toward general negligence, which is the main reason the industry and its production networks and supply chains find it hard to achieve sustainability.

Responsible Consumption and Reduced Inequality SDGs

Both the demand and supply-side actors have a critical role to play in resolving the sustainability problems both in Bangladesh and globally. These sentiments have been voiced by scholars such as Bostrom and Micheletti (2016). These researchers noticed that the global competition among the large producers and an aggressive race to amass more market share have resulted in the manufacturers seeking to further reduce production costs. The result is unsustainable production illustrated by the state of the Bangladesh factories.

Sustainable production and consumption are one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and philosophy in the business environment that has attracted the attention of researchers. According to Roy and Singh (2017), there is currently a push for businesses to embrace sustainable development, which has resulted in companies making efforts to align their practices and business portfolios with the principles of sustainability. In the garment industry, this is hardly achievable due to the many factors acting against sustainability.

It is important to acknowledge that consumption is what drives industries. As explained earlier in the case of the garment industry, the consumers make choices that force corporations to adopt certain policies. High demand for apparel leads to increased competition among producers whose pursuit of profitability and affordability forces them to reduce production costs. In a labor-intensive factory, the workforce becomes the largest cost center, and low wages and long work hours often become a strategy for increasing output while reducing costs. The SDGs often focus on business and experience a bottleneck in attempting to achieve sustainable patterns in consumer behavior (Roy and Singh, 2017). For the supply chain to achieve sustainability, the consumers will need to play their part.

The structure of apparel production, including the fashion sector, can help explain the impacts of production on sustainability. The fashion supply chain, as explained by Strähle and Hauk (2016), is complex because it involves multiple different stages and many companies. For example, modern Western apparel companies comprise over 500 suppliers in the first tier or apparel manufacturers. The suppliers themselves are served by sub-suppliers in the dyeing and finishing (second tier) and the chain continues. The long chain means more stages of value addition which ultimately contribute significantly toward the price of the final product. In the apparel and fashion industries, price is a critical competitive factor, meaning the retailers seeking profitability and reduced costs will influence the decisions of all the suppliers.

However, it is important to understand that it is not always the demand and supply-side factors that influence sustainability in the garment industry. Studies such as Niu, Chen, and Zhang (2017) support the hypothesis that the management attitudes toward sustainability determine the extent to which businesses embrace sustainability. The lack of support by top management is highlighted as one of the major internal barriers to sustainability (Oelze, 2017). Externally, compliance with certain regulations has inhibited some businesses from embarking on innovative supply chain management practices and restrains them from proactively pursuing sustainability.

However, the bottom line is that many firms across the supply chain are loss-averse, meaning any losses are accompanied by cost-reducing strategies, including unsustainable production. Sustainable production and consumption is an important SDG, but the businesses have little power to manage consumption patterns and other environmental factors such as competition that work against the pursuit of this goal.

Another critical SDG largely unachieved in the garment industry is that on reduced inequalities. In countries such as Bangladesh, the inequalities in the garment factories are expressed in the level of pay between management and factory workers and across gender lines. The paper by Stanwick and Stanwick (2015) reveals that for several decades, the industry has been dominated by women where 80% of workers are female and the rest are male.

This ratio has been maintained for years and, from an inequality perspective, the smaller percentage of men are those employed in managerial positions. Stanwick and Stanwick (2015) explain that the reason for this gap is that women are generally less educated and tend to demand lower wages as opposed to men. Additionally, women are deemed more submissive and, thus, more controllable than men. Most importantly, the factories tend to employ unmarried women who have few other duties that deter their performance and availability for work.

The above claims have been supported by several studies examining the gender gaps in the Bangladesh garment industry. For example, Akhter et al. (2017) explain that for a long time the economy of the country has had a tradition where women stayed at home serving the roles of wives, mothers, and daughters. Economic reforms of the 1980s had the effect of creating a job market for the poor and uneducated rural women in the ready-made apparel sector with factories mostly located in urban areas. The work environment has been considered high-stress for this gender because despite being engaged in paid work they still have to serve their domestic roles. This is a manifestation of inequality because instead of empowering women, the paid work added a huge burden on one gender and not the other.

It is important to appreciate that the SGD of reduced inequality does not simply seek to offer respite. Rather the SDG pursues a basic human right that the labor markets in many countries are yet to appreciate. In Bangladesh, the garment industry has been ‘feminized’ as described by Islam (2016), who also argues that increasing employment for women does not necessarily mean bridging the gender gaps. This observation, it is important to acknowledge, applies not only to Bangladesh but also in many Asian developing countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia (Evans, 2019; Imron, Pramesti, and Wahyuni, 2017).

In countries like Indonesia, researchers such as Imron, Pramesti, and Wahyun (2017) find that gender inequality is indeed beneficial to garment factories. This is a similar sentiment to that of Stanwick and Stanwick (2015), who expresses that the Bangladesh factories exploit the vulnerabilities of the women for their own financial gain.

Effect of Sustainability on Supply Chains

Disrupting these inequalities through sustainability would have a devastating effect on the garment supply chains. As mentioned earlier on, sustainability through production and consumption, as well as reduced inequality would raise the production costs across the networks. Ultimately, the retailers would obtain the products and sell them at higher prices. The demand might decline and firms may lose market share. It means, therefore, that the garment industry is supported by the presence of unsustainability an elimination of which may lead to a collapse of the entire system.

Best Practices

Exploring best practices in ethical sourcing in the global garment industry is a difficult task. The complexity of the supply chains and the presence of multiple actors make it hard to tell who is ethical and who is not. According to Dabija, Pop, and Postelnicu (2016), some retailers appeal to and sign contracts with selected manufacturers and the same indent is passed to other partners. In other words, the retailers cannot have complete control over the actions of all their partners and how they undertake their own sustainability initiatives. Rather than focusing on entire industries and supply chains, it is easier to focus on single enterprises and the best practices.

One of the best practices in countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) is reshoring meaning recalling back offshored businesses to the UK. This means that the country’s sustainability governance and policies can be implemented due to the closer control of the manufacturers and their suppliers (Hammer and Plugor, 2016). It is assumed herein that the developed world has better legal and policy frameworks, as well as greater compliance as compared to the developing world. Reshoring, therefore, is considered to be a best practice as it would allow ethical sourcing from suppliers who have embraced sustainability.

Another best practice in the garment industry is the inclusion of social and environmental criteria in the evaluation of suppliers. Winter and Lasch (2016) explain that the suppliers have been faced with both environmental and social challenges. As a result, manufacturers place greater emphasis on these factors over others such as child labor, forced labor, discrimination, and compensation. The research by Winter and Lasch (2016) does not reveal the identities of the companies’ studies, but there is adequate evidence that manufacturers are focused on partnering with suppliers with better social and environmental conduct.

Lastly, corporate social sustainability in the apparel industry can be considered a best practice. CSR has been described as a broad concept that embraces issues such as philanthropy, legal compliance, environmental sustainability, and community investment among others. Having been named and shamed as one of the most harmful industries across the globe, the garment industry has responded by adopting several CSR initiatives and managing its supply chains more effectively (Księżak, 2016). CSR and social sustainability have been used in research to imply the manufacturers’ efforts to address social challenges such as poor working conditions, low wages, and forced labor among others. However, there is a lot to be done considering that further sustainability concerns such as reducing inequality are hardly addressed even with CSR and social sustainability.

Sustainable Strategies

Corporate social responsibility as described in the above section is seen as a response by garment manufacturers to the pressure exerted upon them by the general public. It has also been expressed that the gaps left are still massive and new approaches and strategies should be adopted to ease the situation. Even though there have been new approaches to global sourcing such as ethics and supplier selection criteria, many of them are yet to be fully implemented. The first strategy is the use of ethics in supplier selection.

The origins of ethical retailers have been studied by Rudolph, Suter, and Fouto (2019) who illustrate how emerging entrepreneurs sought to address some of the core challenges in the apparel industry. Ethics, in this case, means that the suppliers are aware of the sustainability challenges and have implemented feasible and visible frameworks in the pursuit of sustainability. Ethical retailers can be described as businesses that use ethical suppliers in addition to integrating ethics into their operations. Challenges such as poor working conditions and worker exploitation can be resolved by ethical retailers partnering with suppliers with similar orientations.

The second strategy recommended for the garment industry is social responsibility reporting which would allow businesses to show their efforts in addressing the sustainability challenges. This is largely a policy issue considering that the situation in Bangladesh as explained by Stanwick and Stanwick (2015) can best be handled through proper legislation. Social sustainability can also be implemented as a best practice where the government regimes are reluctant to force businesses to address critical social issues.

Consumers can be a key driving force in this approach as they play their part in sustainable consumption. Customers today are aware of these sustainability issues and many have started purchasing from those businesses considered responsible and sustainable. Sustainability reporting works best when companies are forced to publish their sustainability practices for the general public to evaluate them. Additionally, it could be the perfect source of information for ethical businesses using ethics and social sustainability as supplier selection criteria in global sourcing.

Strategies Implemented by Primark

The collapse of Rana Plaza saw some of the major garment brands undertake some sustainability initiatives to help prevent similar incidences. Primark is an example of those company to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Besides this initiative, there is hardly any further evidence of Primark proactively pursuing sustainability. Notable, however, it the sustainable cotton program across countries such as India, China, and Pakistan (Pinnock, 2019). The program seeks to educate farmers to produce cotton in an ecologically friendly manner. These practices will hardly address the social sustainability issues considering the complexity of the production network and the many factors that affect sustainability in the industry.

Role of HR

Human resource management in garment companies has a major role to play in the pursuit of sustainability. The concept of green HRM has been used by Bombiak and Marciniuk-Kluska (2018) to imply pro-sustainability HR practices. The HR managers can help firms hire employees, especially in management positions, with the right attitudes and perceptions towards sustainability. Niu, Chen, and Zhang (2017) present a study that hypothesizes that the management attitudes towards sustainability determine the extent to which businesses embrace sustainability. It is argued that HR managers who believe they have a role to play in sustainability will use the same perceptions as a selection criterion when screening managerial candidates.

Role of CEO

The same approach works for the CEOs of the main garment businesses, especially after the fall of Rana Plaza. It is argued here that a CEO of a company such as Primark can change the entire approach towards sustainability by requiring all partners and suppliers to implement sustainability practices.

To meet the sustainability objectives, the CEO could first seek to align the company with ethical businesses and require the company to report its ethical practices. It is held herein that Primark already has an existing CSR framework in which the new sustainability goals can be embedded. Offshoring garment production to Bangladesh indicates that Primark seeks to take advantage of labor advantages which contributed to the worsening of the working conditions and exploitation in the garment factories. Reshoring can, therefore, help assure the company’s customers that Primark is intent on maintaining control over the sustainability issues.

Reference List

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