By Jon Hoerauf, President and General Manager, Arc’teryx
You probably got the memo by now: 2020 is a reckoning.
We are being called to account. As we each tend to our own emergencies and disrupted lives, larger systemic failures are being disclosed under the enduring pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, in every sphere. In the global apparel sector, we’ve been confronted with the extent of our supply chain’s vulnerability.
In October of this year, the International Labour Organization (ILO), a branch of the United Nations, reported on the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19 on “the clothing factory of the world” – the Asia and Pacific region countries that account for 60% of the world’s total apparel exports and employ 65 million garment workers. The global garment trade virtually collapsed in the first half of 2020, with mandatory closures of factories, shortages of raw materials, cancelled orders, and buyers refusing to pay for materials or finished goods. Most workers lost a month of work; two in five workers lost jobs entirely.
Mandatory closures continue in some areas – this threat looms everywhere. Among those currently working, earnings have been reduced, wage delays are common, and those remaining positions are vulnerable to declining demand from consumers who are now facing stringent lockdowns. No country has been immune to the shocks, and the ripple effects for garment workers are dire – and far from over.
With second waves emerging in most countries, we all continue to face deep uncertainty and instability.
While this causes many of us sleepless nights, consider the situation for the women who make up 75% of the world’s garment industry workforce. In one of the most affected regions, Bangladesh, they face a whole different level of vulnerability – not being able to meet basic survival needs like affording enough to eat.
Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Preserving the Bottom Line is not Without Consequence
Here’s what I, and every other corporate leader has to reckon with, like it or not: we’re kidding ourselves if we think preserving the bottom line is without consequence. Our ultimate interdependence – which the continuing spread of COVID-19 keeps reiterating – boils down to this: we are vulnerable to each other’s vulnerabilities. To strengthen ourselves, we need to strengthen each other.
There is no downplaying, outsourcing, or off-shoring of risk that won’t circle back on us.
The global apparel ecosystem needs to do better by its workers.
The simple fact of the matter is, we depend on them. They should be able to depend on us.
The right to health, security, and fair wages is universal. At least, it should be. Supply chains need to reflect this – and evolve to become more human-centred. Then, we’ll all be more resilient.
Uncomfortable choices and awkward conversations lie ahead. I don’t have the answers. We’re definitely not the white knights, but we’re committed to leaning in to this opportunity to do better. I hope, by pulling back the curtain on our operations and choices, it might kindle conversation and fuel widespread change.
At Arc’teryx we craft 5% of our product in Canada at our own manufacturing facility, ARC’One. In addition, we have partnered with manufacturing facilities in 10 countries, involving close to 7,000 skilled people. Our technically complex products require us to purposefully source talent around the world. We invest years developing the relationships and systems needed to bring our exacting designs to life. (It can require 67 different operators to perform the 190 steps that craft a single Alpha SV jacket.)
The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges to Arc’teryx and our supply chain – as it has across the entire apparel sector. It also revealed, in no uncertain terms, massive global imbalances and reiterated how few, if any, social protections exist for the world’s garment makers.
This is the course we have to chart: How do we protect our business and do right by the skilled craftspeople who make our business possible?
We’ve had to re-evaluate the way we do business to respond to the pandemic and ensuing shocks. I believe we need to re-evaluate the way we do business going forward, to make sure we’re doing better by garment workers who make our products.
As a start we’ve chosen to:
- Contribute emergency funds to Bangladesh’s AWAJ Foundation to support some of the world’s most vulnerable workers
- Sign on to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Call to Action (through our parent company, Amer Sports) to address the lack of social protections in our industry
- Commit to transition 80% of our products to be Fair Trade CertifiedTM by 2025.
There’s nothing heroic about these actions – they’re belated, small, and ultimately an inadequate response to the vast inequity that pre-existed COVID-19 and is now accelerating into a humanitarian crisis. It’s on us all to understand the human costs of the global apparel supply chain – to not avert our gaze, to not walk away. Fair Trade should be the new minimum. What could we build from there?
Massive global systems aren’t easily remade. Systemic change doesn’t come with a how-to manual, and requires the best efforts of many actors – consumers, brands, regulators, policy-makers – pushing towards a shared vision.
This is the new math of doing business – one small action can ripple outwards. I believe we need to start with the understanding that disposable fashion results in disposable garment workers. The race to the bottom to make things as cheaply and quickly as possible, has officially bottomed out. It’s time to turn the trajectory around. Instead of making more, let’s make better.
As apparel consumers, you have more power than you realize. I can tell you that brands care about what you care about. When you ask what’s behind the price tag – how is this so cheap? why is it so expensive? – when you demonstrate your commitment to paying more, investing in better quality, and demanding transparency into supply chains, you are holding brands to account. You signal that we can evolve beyond Business As Usual. You signal that we can, and must, afford to care.
To our fellow brands and our worldwide community, I challenge you – as I hope you will challenge me and each other – to use our privilege to create positive change, to commit to doing better by our garment workers.
This wrecking ball of a year keeps leading me back to this new bottom line: we will get the future we deserve. We simply must do better, together.