“The industry must be held accountable!”
This type of declaration is often heard as a justification for why new and additional regulations are so desperately needed for the fashion industry, for example to help with traceability and transparency efforts. Advocates and policymakers alike bemoan what they see as a lack of progress in achieving a range of goals, point to the absence of particular legislative and regulatory constructs to advance those goals, and declare that progress cannot be achieved without more accountability through government oversight.
For many, the push for more regulations is grounded on a series of faulty – sometimes absolutely unjustified and false – premises that (a) there is no accountability in the industry, (b) the industry is not regulated by government, and (c) regulations are the only solution to ensure accountability.
Let’s look at each of these premises in turn.
First, to believe the industry is currently unaccountable is to admit a fundamental lack of knowledge of how the industry works.
Apparel, footwear, and accessories companies are already held accountable to a wide range of public and private stakeholders – such as consumers, workers, owners, supply chain partners, investors, and, yes, regulators. One simply cannot compete in this sector if one is oblivious to the wide range of social and economic contours that shape the global fashion industry. Those that try to operate without accountability fail – and fail quickly.
Those that try to operate without accountability fail – and fail quickly.
Moreover, the range of items on which more accountability is required is growing exponentially by the day. Companies are looking further forward and back in their global supply chains than ever before. Supply chain partners are no longer tasked with simply making and transferring products at the right price, at the right quality, and at the right time. Now they are expected to double as complex networks to transmit increasingly detailed information on how those products were made and to enforce these new accountability standards to their own suppliers.
Second, as noted before, the industry is already widely regulated, although perhaps not to the scale and scope that some would advocate.
Customs and trade policy, bulked out with new environmental and worker rights requirements, have long prescribed details about how clothes and shoes are made and shipped around the world. A complicated (sometimes conflicting) array of labeling, customs, labor, product safety, and chemical management requirements – shaped and enforced by dozens and dozens of international, federal, state, and local agencies – establish basic rules that all fashion companies must follow. Companies invest millions to train their supply chain partners and ensure compliance. To suggest this is an unregulated industry is to ignore reality.
To suggest this is an unregulated industry is to ignore reality.
Third, will more regulations ensure more accountability? Perhaps. However, that outcome is built on a bold assumption that the regulations are designed properly, that they serve their purpose, and that they are properly enforced. All too often, poorly crafted and enforced rules impose burdens on the regulated industry while duping the public that a greater good is being met. Regulations must meet a high bar before they are even considered or created. To aid in that effort, AAFA and partner groups have launched a new initiative, called the THREADS protocol, to outline good regulatory practices for the industry.
All too often, poorly crafted and enforced rules impose burdens on the regulated industry while duping the public that a greater good is being met.
Faulty premises aside, should the industry be more accountable than it already is?
AAFA is on a mission to engineer better accountability and to do so in a way that brings the entire industry – and all its stakeholders – constantly forward.
History will remember this period of time as the era when supply chains became more transparent and traceable – and for good reason. Brands will not thrive (and will not have a foundation forward) if they are associated with supply chains – as a worker, as an owner, as a consumer – that traffic in bad labor practices, dangerous chemicals, or unsustainable methods.
Moreover, the industry’s global impact is massive – not just in the amount of materials it uses and products it produces but in the livelihoods it creates and the people it touches. Not only does this mean we have a huge responsibility, but it also means we have an enormous potential for positive change. But that is doable only if our collective efforts can be focused on smart accountability.
So how do we engineer smart accountability? This is no easy task but here are some “must haves” if we have any chance of succeeding.
- Accountability is a two-way street. Yes, the industry should be held accountable to make increasingly more responsible products in an increasingly more responsible manner. But outside stakeholders need to be held accountable to the truth. And policy makers need to be held accountable to the obligations to the public to design and enforce rules that work and make sense. We all need to exhibit what I call “first mile” thinking – to make sure before we take our first step, we are doing so with deliberation and purpose.
- Measures must be clear, easy to understand and teach, implementable, and backed by proper technology and resources. Remember who will bear the brunt of implementing many of these new accountability requirements. Fashion value chains thread throughout the world and employ millions and millions of people in every country. Workers employed in the global supply chains are on the front lines of efforts to impose new traceability and transparency requirements. We emerge from the pandemic embracing a new buyer supplier relationship. But if we are not able to equip those suppliers with the proper means to succeed, our joint efforts will take much longer.
- Every effort is part of continuous improvement. Today, we are doing better than yesterday and tomorrow we will do better than today. The work of the Better Buying Institute is just one example, creating tools to improve purchasing practices and shining a bright light – such as through the Better Buying Partnership IndexTM – on the work that still lies ahead. Regulators should also embrace this mindset of continuous improvement, recognizing when regulations have outlived their usefulness or when they can be updated as new technologies and needs arise.
With so many individuals around the globe trying to fashion a more responsible industry, we have a tremendous opportunity to create and harness a collective advantage. Each of our own efforts can work together so they become greater than the sum of their parts. And above all we must strive to stay accountable to each other.
Stephen E. Lamar is President and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the national trade association representing more than 1,000 brands in the apparel and footwear industry. Steve leads a dedicated team of professionals who represent AAFA members before the government, through the media, and in industry settings on key brand protection, supply chain and manufacturing, and trade issues. Steve also advises AAFA member companies on legislation and regulatory policies. Follow on Twitter @SteveWonk or LinkedIn.