Apparel brands often talk about the “great” partnerships they have with their suppliers. But what really makes a “True Partner?”

The term “partnership” is a long-established part of the apparel industry lexicon.

The term is often invoked by brands and retailers when defining the quality of their supplier relationships, to imply that we’re working together, everyone is benefitting, everything is just great. Strategic partners especially are assumed to enjoy enviable deals – with large orders and consistent business marking a lucrative and long-term relationship with a big customer.

But are these partnerships truly great? Given the complexity of global supply chains and the many obstacles that imperil getting products in the hands of consumers, shouldn’t brands and retailers (and investors for that matter) want to know without any doubt that their partnerships with suppliers are strong and functioning as effectively and efficiently as possible?

Part of answering this question requires getting beyond the warm and fuzzies, digging into the details, and breaking down the idea of ‘partnership’ into the key practices that take place between the business partners. Better Buying’s new Partnership Index is a short survey that captures suppliers’ beliefs about practices that impact their business profitability, ability to provide decent work for those making our clothes, and their efforts to improve environmental performance. Our recently released report reveals some shortcomings, including that only:

  • 59% of suppliers reported that the customer’s financial practices were always fair.
  • 52% said their customers always gave the visibility necessary to plan business operations.
  • 48% said their customers always gave enough time for all processes.
  • 44% said their customer’s operational processes were always efficient.

Suppliers whose customers never or only occasionally treat them fairly in financial dealings, work efficiently, give them adequate information to plan production and enough time to carry it out, aren’t really supporting the partnerships needed in to meet uncertain market demand under uncertain conditions. 

An even more disappointing, only 42% said their customer always asked for the supplier’s suggestions for product and process innovation. This is bad for buyers because suppliers are an untapped reserve of innovation and insights and by not asking for input buyers are missing out on opportunities to improve their business and profitability.

Furthermore, we know from our supplier data that brands cannot afford to be complacent in relation to their most important suppliers, and assume that their purchasing practices will invariably be better. Our subscribers are frequently surprised to find their strategic suppliers report even more time and financial pressures, compared to their non-strategic suppliers. 

Over nearly three decades carrying out research with suppliers from around the world, I don’t recall ever hearing a supplier say they had a “great partnership” with any of their customers. But I’ve frequently heard the term misused by brands as a lever for forcing suppliers to do whatever they asked, ‘in the spirit of partnership.’ Which often meant rushing out an order at an ultra-low price, while being forced to accept less money, cut corners on wages, and resort to excessive overtime in the factory. 

What’s missing from the business relationship is a “True” Partnership.  

True Partnerships are mutually beneficial and sustainable. They involve close dialogue between the partners who work together to achieve shared objectives that work for everyone involved. With the importance the industry places on speed to market, cost, quality, and  inventory control, True Partnerships are time- and resource-efficient and deals made are fair in the way profits are shared and risks are allocated. And perhaps to state the obvious – the True Partnership extends over time, through the good times and the bad. 

Now more than ever, brands and retailers need to build True Partnerships with their suppliers. And make sure that the quality of the partnerships isn’t just a nice feeling held by the brand or retailer, but is backed up by evidence that suppliers believe the same.

A version of this article appeared in Just Style, on February 18th 2022.