So...What even is a Supply Chain?


In the fashion and lifestyle space, it has become trendy to talk about the supply chain transparency as a way for brands to demonstrate a sort of “goodness” that echoes the prominence of juice cleanses or Veganism – a low-key status symbol for the affluent to wear their commitment to sustainability on their sleeves, rather than the latest “it bag.”

The number of think pieces, case studies and press releases, dedicated to the fashion industry's supply chain model, and its need for change are starting to rival the amount of discarded Forever 21 jeans piling up in myriad landfills across the globe. But how many of us ‘normal folks’ understand what a supply chain even is?

By definition, the supply chain is pretty straightforward. Basically, the term refers to a company, and the network of suppliers and vendors needed to produce and distribute products to retailers or directly to consumers. Supply chains, which once took place within the same region have swelled to massive global operations, spanning multiple countries and involving thousands of people. And because of all these moving parts, and a need to keep the supply flowing freely, supply chain management is focused on making things cheaper and faster, which is where things may get a little tricky.

See, as any consumer is well aware, the fashion industry has some notoriously short lifecycles and its own interpretation of what seasons are. For example, most of us operate with this basic idea that a year has four seasons, but fashion, in an effort to drive more profit and get people in stores – using seasons like early summer and high winter in an effort to inspire people to revamp their wardrobes two, three, four times in a season.

But todays iteration of the supply chain is a far cry from its humble origins. In the old days, we’re talking pre-Industrial Revolution, the supply chain was relatively straightforward — people would spin wool sourced from their own sheep, and from there, would weave their own clothes, or sell the wool to a weaver. Early supply chains might involve a tailor or a merchant, and most people would have an outfit or two they’d wear until it was on its last legs.

Now, fast forward to the current world of fast fashion, flash-in-the-pan trends and social media. Today, the supply chain for a single company can span continents – from villages in Southeast Asia to South America, and the occasional pit stop in the United States – our clothes have likely seen more of the world than we can ever hope to, and the waste alone, not to mention workers’ rights, and emissions regulations, is an unwieldy beast that needs to be tamed.

Humanity has come a long way from weaving our own woolen sacks from the sheep in our own backyard, eh?

Fashion, fast fashion in particular, has grown to such a scale that the environmental impact is competing with cars and oil refineries for having the most negative effect on the planet. And in our current climate where the fate of the EPA hangs in the balance and the promise of a green energy future that once felt bright has given way to a new found cynicism in Trump’s America.

Maybe it is time us consumers gave this stuff a little more thought. It’s easy to tell people to buy more consciously, to buy eco-friendly clothing custom-made by a local artisan. That’s all well and good, and while the whole “buy local” initiative is awesome and people should support the businesses in their community, it may not be feasible for a college student or someone trying to outfit their family to consider the journey behind every article of clothing. In most contexts, we do still need to wear clothes.

So what can budget conscious shoppers do? Or those who want to try it all from embellished bomber jackets to leather pants and destroyed denim? Truthfully it’s all about striking a balance. A couple tips if you’re looking for a good place to start making some simple changes:

Go thrifting for more unique pieces – not only a good way to give back to charity or local small businesses but a great place to find something not all of your friends have.

Just buy less. Easier said than done for the serial shoppers among us. Buy only what you love, and not make purchases based on whether or not something is on sale. How many times have you bought a shirt just because it was $5 and didn’t wear it. Save that money for a meaningful purchase, or better yet, an experience.

And should you want to try the trends on the horizon, by all means, live a little. H&M and Zara, as well as ModCloth and others have been making major steps forward in the eco-friendly space. While there are always going to be some issues with global corporations, if you must head to the mall, look for stores working to make a difference. Sometimes larger corporations have more resources to do the right thing.

At the end of the day, we all have choices to make. The best thing to do is to become educated, to learn about the supply chain, from end to end. It’s unrealistic to expect an overnight transformation, from fast-fashion fanatic to someone sewing their own clothing from recycled fibers, but can we find a midpoint? What’s heartening is, more people are starting to become more aware of what retailers are doing, or not doing to make a difference. The real challenge will lie within our ability to speak with our dollars.  

This piece first appeared here.