Of Collectives and Partnerships: Could Manufacturer Collaboration Help Transform Fashion?

Of Collectives and Partnerships: Could Manufacturer Collaboration Help Transform Fashion?

by Kim van der Weerd created 2022-10-18T23:17:49+07:00
Reflections on the Asia Garment Hub’s October Supplier Meet-Up.

As a result of the last couple of Supplier Meet-Ups, I’ve found myself reflecting on the difference between the term “partnership” and “collective.” If I visualize the two words, the word partnership is vertical. It’s a chain hanging from floor to ceiling. It’s a commercial relationship – ideally one where profits and losses are distributed equitably. Collective, on the other hand, is horizontal. It’s a web, suspended from wall to wall. It’s a space where entities are connected to a whole even if there isn’t a direct commercial relationship. If I visualize both words together, I see a room with lots of parallel chains hanging from floor to ceiling and lots of overlapping webs suspended from wall to wall. The chains and the webs structurally support one another. They are co-dependent pieces of a whole.

Maybe partnerships – meaning shared profits and losses – are what we need to re-imagine how we make apparel and footwear. The designs. The production processes. The planning systems.  In contrast, maybe the word collective is what we need to re-imagine the contexts – the geographic places in which fashion is made, purchased, and used. Because really doing fashion sustainably requires us to reimagine both things. We need to think vertically and laterally.

It's for this reason that the word “collective” was the subject of October’s Meet-Up. I opened the session by asking the small but dedicated group of manufacturers what brought them to the Supplier Meet-up. What made them interested in the idea of manufacturer collaboration?

Here were some responses (I’m paraphrasing):

I’m interested in a pre-competitive space, not something that helps companies use sustainability as a market differentiator.

We are interested in collaborating to jointly upgrade equipment (mass procurements) so that better prices can be negotiated and it’s easier to get a return on sustainability investments. (Several people supported this idea).

I have no idea how my peers in manufacturing are doing on their sustainability targets. We are all suffering but not disclosing it to each other.

I’d like to see manufacturers working together to engage brands in conversation. For example, maybe similar brands could be grouped together, and a collective of manufacturers could feedback to those brands on their sustainability strategy (even if there isn’t a commercial relationship). This would be a way to have better conversations with brands and shape the way the industry does sustainability in the first place.

Several people also expressed interest in policy, and in putting forward a collective voice on sustainability issues specifically. Participants felt that a forum for this is lacking, and that the relative anonymity offered by a collective would also make advocacy safer.

I then asked participants whether they had ever experienced successful collaboration between manufacturing companies.  Here were some responses (still paraphrasing):

I work with a group of manufacturers all operating in a single place. Crisis and scandal were the catalysts for our cooperation. There used to be several hundred factories in our city. Everyone was working on their own. It was super cutthroat and price sensitive. Now, we’re down to 150 factories. Those 150 factories are working together to set up “virtually” vertical operations.

We have close relationships with a couple of our competitors and have engaged with them on specific issues. For example, when we were thinking about going into organic cotton, we talked to some of our competitors about their experience with this. There was very open and transparent communication, but this was due to the personal relationships between individuals involved. Information is candid when the conversations are one-on-one because there’s trust. Is it possible to scale this? I’m not sure.

This comment prompted more discussion on what it would take to get more manufacturers to talk to each other. One barrier that came up repeatedly was mindset: manufacturers must stop saying things simply because it’s what they believe other people want to hear. While there seemed to be consensus on this point, others pointed out that this was easier said than done. For example, one person shared that in their experience, the price for speaking one’s mind can be very steep. Another person shared that they engage with a lot of smaller manufacturing companies whose owners simply do not have the capacity to engage beyond the day-to-day operations.

Another barrier that came up was access.  Several participants described that their only access to other manufacturers was through personal networks. Other people cited the lack of supplier forums as a barrier. Several individuals felt that existing industry forums tend to be very brand driven – even if this is not their intention. Someone suggested that, as a result, the platform itself can shut down the conversation. Manufacturer feedback is welcome – but only to the extent that it is not too uncomfortable for the non-manufacturers in the room. Participants seemed to agree that any manufacturer collaboration needs stem from space that is truly manufacturer driven.

And finally, several participants expressed that their internal capacity is a barrier. People are already overstretched just with their day jobs.  In an ideal world, collaborative projects would be steered by a collective of manufacturers, but there would be supporting resources to help manage and coordinate the work.

We closed the session by discussing concrete projects that participants might want to collaborate on. Suggestions ranged from a petition or joint statement on energy and decarbonization targets to hyper-local collaboration within specific industrial parks to mapping the upcoming legislative landscape and what it will mean for manufacturers.

Do these ideas interest you? For the manufacturers attending the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Global Fashion Summit Conferences in Singapore, we’ll be talking about these ideas in person the evening of 1 November. Register here for the in-person meet-up. For manufacturers not in attendance in Singapore, we’ll pick up the conversation at December’s meet-up.