Why does the garment industry’s structure matter to you?

The posts in this series are designed to explore the industry’s structure, and why a good understanding of that structure is critical for anyone interested in improving human rights or environmental conditions.  The idea is to explore these issues in a way that is accessible to people who don’t spend all of their time thinking about supply chain structures – but still have to deal with them on a regular basis. This means relatively short posts, and as little jargon as possible.

The structure of the garment industry (and why it matters to you!), part 1:

People interested in improving conditions in the garment industry come to this area from many different backgrounds: human rights, labour rights, corporate social responsibility, environmental management, advocacy, law and the media, among others. And so for most people ‘garment industry structure’ is probably not the first topic that springs to mind when considering how to combat child labour or water pollution. But I would argue that the structure of the industry, perhaps more than anything else, influences why negative outcomes happen, and what successful solutions will need to contain.

Why does the garment industry’s structure matter?

Changing conditions in any industry requires figuring out who can deliver the desired change. Sometimes it is a single person or organisation, but often multiple actors will need to change behaviour simultaneously. Knowing who can deliver change is an essential step for any kind of reform effort: be it trainings, lobbying & advocacy, legislation or collective bargaining. If you target people or organisations who can’t deliver what you want, you’re going to be disappointed in the outcome. (Whether they want to deliver the change is a separate question, but we’ll come back to that another day.)

The garment industry is best thought of as a system.  A very helpful definition of a system like a supply chain is A set of things… interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.*  Systems change specialists refer to the process of identifying the key actors in a system as a type of ‘systems mapping’ exercise. Understanding the players in the garment industry, and how they interact and influence each other is an essential but often overlooked step in reform efforts. All too often, organisations interested in change will jump over this step, arguing that they already know who is causing the problem. Depending on where you are in the world and the supply chain, that is often the most familiar or most obvious candidate (e.g. a well-known clothing brand, or the factory up the road). And that candidate is likely part of the problem – but in the garment industry, as in most complex systems, they are likely to be only part of the problem.

And therein lies one of the main problems of many efforts to reform the garment industry: they are based on an incomplete ‘map’ of the system and do not address all the organizations who need to be involved to deliver the desired change in behaviours. Most of the fixes which have been proposed only focus on a single point in the garment industry, like factory audits, protests against individual brands, or single-country legislation. In a different industry, these efforts might have been more effective. But the structure of the garment industry means that interventions aimed only at a single point in supply chains – yarn mills, garment factories, brands, etc. – will likely fail.

The practical implications of this are significant for reform efforts.  It means that solutions imported from other industries or other time periods – be they laws, organising strategies or training methods – will need to be redesigned to account for the way the garment industry is structured – and in some cases, redesigned from the ground up.

So what is it about the garment industry structure that makes it different from other industries – and so difficult to deal with? We start diving into to that and other questions in the next episode.

* Drawn from Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: A Primer, which, together with David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Change, provide many useful tools for understanding and changing complex systems like supply chains.

Threads in your inbox