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Keeping our Rivers Alive – Retailers/Brands need to Step Up

While we all acknowledge and understand the gravity of the challenge that climate change poses, the horribly quality of our air and water is testament to how little we really are doing anything about it. “Sustainability” is today a big thing in the Fashion Supply Chain. All major brands have teams of people who work on sustainability. However visit any river or sea next to any major textile hub in the world and the filth and pollution tells you how ineffective all this has been. While all of the water pollution is not attributable to the garment industry, we cannot shy away from our responsibility. The problem is that the very distributed nature of the supply chain in the fashion industry means that those directly responsible for the pollution (i.e. process houses, garment washing units etc.) – have very limited capabilities to do much about it. When retailers are pushing these units for every cent, the incentive to invest in cleaner technology becomes unviable and in some cases a killer to the business. So how do we get out of this mess?

First, we all need to understand and be clear that at the end of the day Retailers/Brands have to be held accountable for what pollution is being caused by their sub-contractors. Now I know that big corporations are quite smart to protect themselves legally and sometimes even profess their inability to micromanage their sub contractors, however at the end of the day, if the color of ground water turns red then someone with a lot to lose needs to be held responsible. Its the same way that the government ensures that the principle employer cannot escape their statutory responsibility by just keeping people on another sub-contractor’s roles.

Second, Brands need to actively take a cluster approach in terms of tackling pollution. Vendor education cannot be limited to conducting workshops. Retailers/brands need to engage actively with local authorities to see what can be done. For example how to improve the water supply in a region so that factories are not depleting the ground water. How can grid connected solar plants be facilitated in a region? After all the CEO of a major brand has far greater leverage than a small sub-contractor to approach authorities and get their attention to address a pressing problem.

Third, brands need to invest in new age technology that will help in curbing water and energy consumption and make it available at negligible cost to their eco-system. Individual factories dont have the deep pockets to risk a $10million investment in developing a new type of washing machine – but a large retailer can or at least a coalition of large retailers can afford this – and if that technology is available for everyone to freely use – then quickly it will become commercially affordable for everyone.

I know for quite a few of my colleagues working in retail/brands – its discomforting to have the onus put on them, but when a retailer has the power to tell a sub contractor how exactly they should run their unit (quality systems, designing, what to put on what line etc.) then they also have the responsibility to not just “tell” what the unit needs to do – but also help them achieve the sustainability goals. True partnership is a 2 way street. Factories need help and the big boys (i.e. retailers/brands) need to step up. Time is running out for mother earth.

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