The Covid-19 pandemic has sown disruption across the global economy, and the garment industry is no exception. With high streets shut down and customers at home, fashion brands scaled down orders and operations, throwing into jeopardy the salaries of millions of people working in the supply chain. These troubles once more brought to the fore the debate around the social and environmental sustainability of the global fashion industry. “The tragedy is that it takes a tragedy for people to become aware of what’s going on,” says Orsola De Castro, the founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit movement campaigning for more transparent supply chains in the industry.

Q: What is your opinion on the state of the fashion industry today?

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A: Never more than this year during Covid-19, have I been reminded of the reason why Fashion Revolution came to be in the first place, which is the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013. There are these moments when it is as if a giant magnifying lens is looking at what is happening and really highlighting what needs to be seen. Because this is an industry that has deliberately designed itself to be opaque. 

There were periods when this industry was respectable and dignified. When the fashion industry moved to Italy, it did so because Italy used to be as cheap as south Asia can be today. What did Italy do? It created an industry that was based on dignity and on transparency, where everybody could see what was being done. And that worked really. It grew communities in the Vicenza area. The Veneto region at one point was as rich as California, and that was because of industrialisation, and in particular the fashion industry. 

But we also know that this industry was born exploitative, and the move to other shores and other producing countries was significantly in order to exploit. Again, I speak from experience. When in the Veneto region near Montecchia the river became so appallingly polluted because of the leather tanning industry, the local government tried to enforce different regulations within a year. Pretty soon after that the factories moved to China. So the move to producing countries were deliberate moves to hide the exploitation and toxicity of the supply chain. 

Q: How has Covid-19 disrupted the supply chain in the industry?

A: With Covid-19, workers are owed billions in unpaid wages, because of order cancellation, while fashion tycoons have made a fortune from online sales during the pandemic. What this industry needs is radical and mandatory transparency, because although transparency will not necessarily lead you to best practice, it leads you somewhere. Shorter and more resilient supply chains mean nothing unless they come with the word ‘visible’ before them. Covid-19, but in particular the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighted the importance of this visibility. The younger generations are ready to scrutinise. They no longer take fashion like fish take a hook: stupidly. Black Lives Matter was instrumental in changing the attitude for that generation. That will demolish the fashion industry when this generation comes to power. 

Q: Do you see already any major adjustment in the industry in this direction? 

A: I do indeed, but I think the main problem that we are witnessing is the fact that the mainstream is invasive, and does not leave adequate space for those brands that do have the smaller, resilient supply chains. 

The oligopoly of the mainstream in itself is unsustainable, and is ensuring that the whole industry remains unsustainable because it allows no space. It is one of the least inclusive industries I’ve ever seen. It imposes standards which murder young brands, rather than encourage them. 

So that’s why we need to see a bottom-up approach. I’m very proud the Fashion Revolution has always had a bottom-up approach. We’re a people-like movement; we need to see that reflected on the high street.

Q: Is there anything that you think that the policy-makers can and should do to support a more bottom-up approach?

A: I do believe that it is a question of giving opportunities where there has also been a lot of exploitation. So one level would be to include those designers of countries where the product is being made, and ensuring that they are not just a producing country, but a country that is capable of creating their own skill, their role that those heroes have belongs to us all. If I can give you an example from Covid-19, we’ve got a generation of six-year-olds who have completely stopped looking at superfluous heroes to really manifest their joy and their support for doctors and nurses. 

Also in fashion, we’re seeing a real movement of respect towards the people in the supply chain, and I do know that Fashion Revolution was very much instrumental in bringing visibility to garment workers and ensuring that Western consumers are aware that it is people often struggling with their personal lives making those clothes. So these are the heroes we need to have. And we need to create a system where it is not the pinnacle, not the designer, but the entirety of the supply chain that is allowed to thrive, that will create alternatives. 

Q: So what is your perception? Has this model of global value chains in the fashion industry managed to deliver some improvements to local communities? 

A: There is a fundamental word missing. We’ve been providing jobs, but we’ve not been providing good jobs. You know, I would beg you to think about the life of a garment in the Rana Plaza factory complex the day before the factory collapsed, and they were aware of the fact that the walls were crumbling. And then they crumbled. Do you consider that to be an improvement to our community? How is that possibly considered an improvement? The fact is that we were exploiting them before, and we’ve continued to do so. So that’s where it went wrong. In all honesty, it’s very patronising that we think that giving someone peanuts is better than them having nothing. Well, maybe when they had nothing, they were free.

Q: Any successes at all? 

A: I have seen some really very beautiful factories in producing countries. And it normally is up to the factory owner to really care for their surroundings. And, of course, there are some wonderful examples of amazing operations that go above and beyond their duty, but unfortunately, they are the exception and not the rule. There’s a lot that we could learn from them, but we choose not to.

There are younger generations in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India being brought up in this situation and ameliorating the conditions not just for themselves, but for everybody else. There is a phenomenal group of very young upcyclists, in India, using up quantities of waste from their local factories. Why do we not see them everywhere? That’s where the innovation lies, and that’s why we need to not just to elevate the people that work in the supply chain but to give them equal chances to the ones that we’ve had. Because often that intelligence, that innovation, that knowledge comes from inside the factories. It could well be somebody that was born and bred in that factory and has seen the positive and the negative, and I feel that the transparency and visibility would highlight the importance of these realities. Innovation is just as likely if not more likely to come from the countries that have been manufacturing so therefore have been a massive part of the problem. 

And the truth is that brands are inevitably realising the importance of actually improving these communities and their environment now. They’re now beginning to really see the importance when it comes to their brand, but it’s still self protection, it’s still because they have to save face. 

Q: Have you seen any cases of a country being able to bring back some of the supply chain? 

A: I am quite enamoured with the Italian industry. There is a type of industry which I call artigianato industrial, it’s like industrial artisans, where the smaller is celebrated and transparency and innovation is really in the DNA of the people that live and work in those realities. The entire city of Prato, which, as far as I’m concerned is leading the way in innovation, and really innovation starts from the gut. It’s very civilised and amazing to watch. 

This article first appeared in the April/May print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.