Improving working conditions in your clothing supply chain

Case 1: You know those pants we ordered? We need them in a different color!

Most people working in apparel have experience with some version of this scenario – late product changes.  We’ve taken a simplified example here to illustrate the kinds of issues that late product changes have further down the supply chain, and the complexities of dealing with them.  Sorry sales folks – we’re picking on you in this example, but as we develop new case studies, everyone will have their turn.  We promise.

  • The scenario:

    So here’s the story:  Just weeks before the delivery deadline of an order, the sales team sound the alarm: they’ve just had the results back from a survey indicating that a colour change is needed, or the product won’t sell.  And they want the product in store on the original deadline.


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  • What do you do?

    So do you make the change?  Well, in most cases, the answer will be yes.  You’re not in the business of making products that don’t sell, right?   So what are the consequences?

    Well, at the brand level, it means sales and income are in good shape, and morale will be ok – you’re going to sell a lot of pants that would otherwise have sat around on the shelf.

    But as you’ve already guessed…this decision will probably have a negative impact on the factory workers.  Let’s have a look at the specifics (after all, you have to know about the problems before you can start to fix them…)


  • The downside...

    High pressure on delivery times in many cases leads to people being forced to work excessive, badly paid overtime. That is likely to be someone like Shima, a young woman who has already been working for many years. Her official working day starts at 8 and ends at 6, but in reality, she usually works a lot longer – sometimes 100 hours a week!

    Let’s think about what that means: if you work for sixteen hours – let’s say from 7 in the morning until 11 at night – There’s no time for family life or relaxation

    There isn’t even enough time for sleeping. And everything hurts from sitting on a backless stool day in day out, bent over a sewing machine. Long hours also affect the quality of the work… and also the safety of the workers.  By far the most workplace accidents happen during overtime, when workers are tired.

    So, not a great outcome for Shima.

    But if you just say no to the changes, it will hurt sales, and maybe the viability of the brand.  It’s not a great choice.

  • As you still want the product to be delivered at the same time, the late colour change eats up some of the time available for production: new fabric will have to be ordered and tested, for example for colourfastness… And in any case, you’ve now missed your production slot: by not using the time the factory had for you, you’re forcing the factory to create a new time-slot: most probably, at night.

    Time, then, is a crucial factor here.

    Of course these are simplified infographics.  In reality, it’s a very complex supply chain.

    And brands have more choices than a simple yes or no.

    The key to a well-made garment is to make choices that, on balance, do not negatively impact the working conditions of the factory worker.


  • What else can be done?

    Your colleagues in the industry have suggested a few options:

    Early notice to supplier – immediately telling the supplier that you’re going to miss your production time-slot gives best chance that they can make a reasonable adjustment to their production schedule.

    Compensate additional costs – so the factory can hire extra workers, or at least pay the required overtime fees; costs may increase somewhat, but as sales would stay up, that may well be worth it.

    Air freight material – clearly, not ideal from an environmental or cost perspective, so that has to go in the balance too…

    Change delivery time at retailer – this will be a lot easier if the retailer has attended one of our wellmade sessions!

    Pull the whole order – the last resort, obviously, as sales would go down to zero and the factory would lose the order – not great for worker wellbeing either! If this ends up being the only option, brands should compensate the factory for the loss of income – it’s not the factory’s fault the colour needed to be changed.

  • Those are the options?

    You may have noticed that none of these options are great.  Reacting to late changes is difficult, but there are also steps that most brands can take to limit the chances of late changes.  We’ll be covering that in a future Case Study, so be sure to come back and visit us.

    In the meantime, we hope this case study has given you some ideas about consequences and possibilities, and might spark some creative solutions that might work for your brand.

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