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Essay: Fashion Supply Chain and Sustainability: Meeting the Needs of Future Generations

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Sustainable development is defined by United Nations Commission on Environment and Development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (WDEC,1987). The United Nations also developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be reached by 2030 in order to achieve a better future. They address the global challenges faced by the world, such as poverty, climate, justice and peace and are interconnected to leave nobody behind (UN, 2018). The fashion industry has been criticised for its impact on sustainability and social environment, over its affairs including child labour, pollution and exploitation of labour (Claudio, 2007; Nagurney and Yu, 2012; Turker and Altuntas, 2014; Freise and Seuring, 2015; Boström and Micheletti, 2016). Furthermore, the present clothing consumption behaviour is raising concern over sustainability issues relating to outsourcing of products in lower worker cost countries, expansion of transportation distances, agility and shorten time for the supply chain turn-around (see, e.g. Christopher and Holweg, 2011; Bradley, 2014; Mehrjoo and Pasek, 2016). Evidence propose sustainability issues disrupting the market is due to its supply chain, with its pressure for constantly decreasing cost and lead times in distribution (Hofmann et al., 2014; Perry and Towers, 2013; Boström and Micheletti, 2016). These type of disruptions can create risks for the organisations, such as environmental penalties, repetitional risks and financial risks due to loss in sales (Lee and Vachon, 2016). It is therefore crucial to incorporate sustainability in the fashion supply chain in order to pursue a sustained business (Caniato et al., 2012). When considering the fashion supply chain companies must consider future generations as this subset of broader population represent an increased demand (UN, 2018). This essay will discuss the current issues of the fashion supply chain, initiatives made by organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and opportunities for future sustained fashion supply chain activities accomplished more sustainable.

Fashion Supply Chain

The fashion market include a competent of seasonality and outdated nature of products, and fast fashion is mainly characterised by constant product renovation and scarcity. It is characterised by short product life cycles, high demand volatility, low predictability and high purchasing momentum. (Christopher et al., 2004, Masson et al., 2007; Macchion et al., 2015).

Although all fashion systems involve an element of seasonality and product obsolescence, fast fashion in particular is characterised by the constant renewal of products and scarcity for increased consumer appetite of clothing renewal (Barnes and Lea-Greenwood, 2006). Fast fashion retailers have seen remarkable growth from imitating luxury brand styles into competitively priced collections. The manufacturing of clothes is relatively low-tech and labor intensive with low entry barriers (Perry et al., 2015), explaining increasing trends of outsourcing production to countries with lower labour costs which results in geographically complex supply chains. mainly disintegrated across small- and medium-sized in Asia, and traditionally Europe as focus area for retailing but with growingly expanding to emerging markets (Rafi-Ul-Shan, P. M. et al., 2018).

Fashion supply chain partnerships are largely based on current market needs and aims to achieve the highest margins by timely capturing demand (Barnes and Lea-Greenwood, 2006; Masson et al., 2007; Perry et al., 2015).

Consumer buying decisions for fashion clothing are largely based on desire, not necessity. Therefore, retail success is highly depending on the attractiveness of the fashion apparel and well-timed deliveries. Social media is impacting customer expectations of on demand clothing deliveries with the increasing trends of “see-now’, buy-now”. With consumers having an increasing demand and higher expectations, the fashion supply chains must be proactive in identifying trends and reactive of bringing them onto the market on time  with minimum stock-keeping units to maximise margins during the trend sales window to avoid extra costs of discounted items and inventory (McGregor, 2017; Hartman et al., 2012).

Sustainable supply chain management

Ginger and Gupta (1999, p.818) defined sustainable supple chain management as “the strategic, transparent integration and achievement of an organisation’s social, environmental and economic goals in the systematic coordination of key organisational business processes for improving the long-term economic performance of the individual company and its supply chains”.


Issues for sustainable social and environmental practices in the fashion supply chain mainly occur due to the complexity of geographic distance. Textile production applies high amounts of chemicals and water, exploitation of labour and poor working conditions, textile waste both pre- and post- consumers, and emissions of carbon dioxide from manufacturing and transport.(De Brito et al., 2008; Caniato et al., 2012; Freise and Seuring, 2015; Perry et al., 2015). In particular, fast fashion with its increasing pressure of reduced lead time and costs and export of volumes has a compelling sustainable impact (Turker and Altuntas, 2014). In addition, since clothing is less expensive, consumers buy more resulting in increased amount of garments ending up in landfill (Morgan and Birtwistle, 2009).

Recent supply chain trends, such as outsourcing and complex technology, have resulted in complex networks creating vulnerability and operational disruptions (Manuj and Mentzer, 2008). The modern business environment is increasingly unstable and turbulent, creating greater risk for the fashion supply chain (Christopher et al., 2004; Masson et al., 2007). First, inability to predict market signals and react quickly can create market risk, highlighting the importance of agility and responsiveness to sustain in the buoyant retail market. Obsolescence and mark-down of products can lead to financial risks, and mistrust between suppliers and distorted information creates a risk of chaos. In addition, ethical, environmental and visibility failures will contaminate the business and bran reputation (Christopher et al., 2004; Masson et al., 2007; Caniato et al., 2012; Perry et al., 2015). The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh and Nike’s child labour scandal are examples of non-sustainable supply chain management resulting in severe brand image and reputation detractions, supply disruption, financial loss, and lives lost (Perry et al., 2015; Quarshie et al., 2016).

Stakeholder influence

Research has shown there is a gap in attitude-behaviour regarding fashion consumer’s sustainability interest and ethical consumption (Niinimäki, 2010) as consumers do not wish any personal sacrifice, such as premium pricing, when purchasing eco-fashion (Crane and Clarke, 1994). Fashion companies are urged by stakeholders to migrate environmental impacts and build sustainable supply chains, but in order to facilitate that companies need to construct a transparent marketing plan to promote environmental consumption (Gurau and Ranchhod, 2005). Many companies see sustainable development as a positive opportunity to build goodwill among conscious consumers, conserve brand reputation and improve brand image(Tate et al., 2012; Perry et al., 2015) and there is research proposing a customer demand for sustainable products (Ho and Choi, 2012).

Legalisation and regulatory pressure from stakeholders and government policies/legislation are the most cited drivers to integrate sustainability into business operations, focusing mainly on quantities and types of chemicals used in products, chemical waste, ejection of factory water, waste disposal, place of origin, and discharge and landfill tax (Anderson and Anderson, 2009).


United Nations sustainability initiative is challenging the fashion supply chain network on a global level. Governments worldwide have agreed to mobilise the common efforts and work towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 in order to put the world on a sustainable path. Businesses need to apply their innovation and creativity as all actors are needed to succeed, as it is an opportunity to address the world’s biggest sustainability challenges through business-led technologies and solutions. A company’s actions and activities across the supply chain may directly or indirectly have negative or potentially future negative impact on one or multiple SDGs (GRI et. al. 2015).

The fashion supply chain mainly touches on several of the SDGs though all its activities, but mainly have a negative impact on two of the SDGs; goal number 12 regarding responsible consumption and production, and goal number 13 regarding climate action.

Goal 12 concerns the ensuring of sustainable production and consumption patterns.  UN (2018) explained “Decoupling economic growth from resource use is one of the most critical and complex challenges facing humanity today. Doing so effectively will require policies that create a conducive environment for such change, social and physical infrastructure and markets, and a profound transformation of business practices along global value chains.”

Before 2030 a higher percentage of the world population will enter the middle class sector, increasing the demand for natural resources. Patterns of consumption need to be more sustainable and reduce their ecological footprint to enable reclamation of natural resources. Consideration over the impact of environmental and social impacts of fashion products, both in its life cycle and usage (GRI et. al. 2015; UN, 2018).

Goal 13 is addressing the urgent need to take action to combat climate change and its impacts.  UN (2018) explained “The year 2017 was one of the three warmest on record and was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period. An analysis by the World Meteorological Organization shows that the five-year average global temperature from 2013 to 2017 was also the highest on record. The world continues to experience rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions (the North Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest ever recorded) and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. This calls for urgent and accelerated action by countries as they implement their commitments to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.”

Climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and affects natural and human systems worldwide by increasing the global average temperature, natural disasters and extreme weather, changing precipitation patterns, rising sea levels and acidification of the oceans. Ultimately, these risks will affect people's livelihoods and the world must transform its energy, industry, transportation, food usage, agriculture and forestry systems to assure that cumulative net emissions do not exceed one trillion tons of cumulative carbon, which means global net emissions of zero by the second half of the century. At the same time, the world must anticipate, adapt and be resilient to the current and anticipated future climate change impacts (GRI et. al. 2015; UN, 2018).


The reasons most cited for integrating sustainability in supply chains include cost and risk reduction and the organisational engagement in sustainability (Walker and Jones, 2012).

Sustainable integration can decrease market and sustainability risk, such as reduced demand or consumer boycotts creating competitive disadvantage, diminishing pollution clean-ups and penalties, reduces costs of material and energy use, and enhances relationships with stakeholders (Mollenkopf, 2006; Walker and Jones, 2012).

Companies need to work together for a common goal in order to accomplish an integration of the supply chain by developing strategic, cooperative and collaborative long – term relationships with supply chain partners (Ramanathan and Gunasekaran, 2014; Perry et al., 2015).

Teller et al. (2016) noted the importance of key supplier relationships in the management of the supply chain as they allow companies to benefit from the advantages of agility, responsiveness and profitability. (Doyle et al., 2006). Key supplier relationships are also important for retailers in order to better manage social and environmental sustainability issues, and consequently there has been a shift towards rationalisation of supplies and greater cooperation with key suppliers.(Perry and Towers, 2013; Köksal et al., 2017).

To integrate sustainability in the fashion business operations companies have to design closed-loop supply chains, extend fashion product life cycles, designing for the environment and reuse fashion garments and materials (Mollenkopf, 2006; Ljungberg, 2007).


Working towards the SDGs could reinforce economic incentives for organisations to make more efficient use of resources or explore to more sustainable options as externalities are increasingly becoming internalised. Organisations that coordinate their priorities with the SDGs can increase the participation of customers, employees and other stakeholders. Companies can not succeed in failing societies, so contributing in the achievement of the SDGs supports business success, including the existence of regulatory markets, transparent financial systems and non-corrupt and well-governed institutions.

By integrating sustainability into the value chain, firms can protect themselves and create value by increasing sales, developing new market segments, improving operational efficiency, enhance the brand, stimulating product innovation and reducing employee turnover (GRI et. al. 2015; UN, 2018).


To ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns, and achieve goal 12 companies need to identify where in the supply chain interventions have the greatest success potential to improve environmental and social impact. Innovation and design appropriate solutions can influence and enable a more sustainable lifestyle for individuals. Sustainable sourcing, recycling and up cycling, with modular design making it easier for garments to be reused, or recycled to decrease waste are ways to produce more sustainable products. Companies also need to use analytical tools to understand the environmental and social footprint of its products and provide product and service information and labelling for consumers (GRI et. al. 2015; UN, 2018).


By reducing the carbon footprint of the products, continuously developing energy efficiency actions and increase investment in innovation and development resulting in decreased carbon emission companies can contribute to accomplishing goal 13 of the SDGs to take action to combat climate change and its impacts urgently.

In addition, companies should build resilience in their operations, supply chains and the communities in which they operate. All actions do not have to be huge, small actions such as retrofitting the lighting systems to energy efficient LED lights in company facilities, and source electricity form renewable sources also makes a difference. Through greater fuel efficiency, warehouse optimisation and above all, local sourcing and production can immensely reduce emission from transport operations (GRI et. al. 2015; UN, 2018).

Sustainable design and production have also become a key opponents in the managing of the  environmental, social and economic impacts of fashion products and supply chain activities, as it could improve product quality, benefit from new supplier technology, reduce cost and lead times, and reduce textile waste (Zsidisin and Smith, 2005; Khan et al. 2008). By improving product functionality and adopt environmental and social considerations into product design designers could create more sustainable clothing (Fargnoli et al., 2014).

Ljungberg (2007) argued that sustainable product design must result in customer satisfaction in order to achieve success in the marketplace, therefore factors such as fashion and culture should be considered in sustainable product development.

Literature on sustainability also suggests close relationships and the inclusion of multiple stakeholders,  information sharing and cooperation with supply chain partners, and early involvement of suppliers in the design process (Zsidisin and Smith, 2005; Sharifi et al. 2006; Walker and Jones, 2012).

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