Since almost the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, stakeholders have been deliberating about issues relating to the textiles-apparel fashion industry. It has been a time for ideas and opinions, which have been as diverse as the industry itself is. What most people agree on is that the industry itself is in many ways responsible for the mess it finds itself in. What few agree on are the ways and means of making things better. But these ideas and opinions cannot exist in isolation. We, therefore, look at some ground realities.
There is this Biblical story of Babel. After the Great Deluge, humanity had settled in the land of Shinar, one of the cities in Babylon founded by King Nimrod. This was in ancient Mesopotamia and on the eastern banks of the river Euphrates. People, hitherto, had spoken in a common tongue and now wanted to build a tower that would reach up to Heaven.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4, ESV) According to the Holy Book, when God came to see the works, he felt that the “stairway to heaven” would lead people away from the path of God. The building of the tower, essentially a stepped pyramid called the ziggurat that was commonplace in Mesopotamia, was a break away from the word of God: to scatter themselves across Earth. So, God threw a spanner in the works by confusing the language of the city people so that they could no longer understand one another. The tower could never be completed as the Babel of voices did them in.
The story of Babel was clear as crystal in its message: that the people fancied themselves as great construction workers and wanted to do what seemed best for themselves. They were too steeped in their pride, nay arrogance, and thought they could reach Heaven on their own terms.
The story of Babel would also find disconcerting resonance in what happened in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. The ad hoc meetings after Saddam’s death were chaotic at best. Tempers would fray, guns would be drawn and even shots fired. Everyone wanted to have a say in the direction the country was to take, and everyone wanted to have a share of the already-crumbling pie. After eighteen years of the internecine wars that have only heaped unmitigated and untold misery on the people of that country, the Babel continues.
One could cut to the chase here: the shambles that the world finds itself in with the force majeure event of the coronavirus pandemic has turned out to be another Biblical Babel of voices. Particularly, in the textiles-apparel-fashion industry. It would seem everybody is out to fix fashion, and everyone has his/her own idea of going about it. It’s my way or the highway.
It’s a given that the industry has had a problem, and also that it is the cause too of innumerable problems. But the notion that since everything is broken, it needs to be fixed is illusory. There are indeed elements to be sorted out, but building a world from scratch is an idea rooted in naivete. And conceit too.
The turning of the page of a calendar into a New Year means zilch, except for academic interest. Virtually all that one saw in the annus horribilis of 2020 have ambled on to this year.
It would be worthwhile to look at just a few things that are likely to have a bearing on the months, maybe even years, to come.
The biggest non-pandemic event of 2020 arguably was the election of Joe Biden. If there is one thing that the world is frantically looking forward to is the re-entry of the United States into the fold of the Paris Agreement. President-elect Biden had announced soon after election in December 2020 that the US would make a comeback the very day he takes office. The withdrawal of the US under the previous incumbent Donald Trump had thrown all the good work on climate change over the last two decades to the winds.
It was during Trump’s regime that the climate change term escalated into a climate emergency. In spite of the absence of the US on the international front for four years, the world has taken tiny steps towards a sustainable world. There is no reason to disbelieve Biden, and therein the world is likely to see more pro-active action on climate change. The flouting of environmental regulations, particularly in the US, and watering down of environmental laws should become a thing of the past. But whether stricter laws, instead, come into being remains to be seen.
All eyes would also be on Biden w.r.t trade. Biden was vice-president in the Obama administration that had wanted to rewrite the rules of international trade with the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trump withdrew from the TPP, as he had incessantly vowed to in the run up to his election. Whether Biden can and will join what was left of the deal (in the form of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP), once again remains to be seen. The world is no longer the same place as it was when Biden was vice-president.
The US has been at daggers drawn with both the European Union (EU) as also many of the latter’s member states. The United Kingdom (UK) is no longer part of the EU. And to make matters worse, the EU towards the fag end of 2020 signed an investment deal with China, with which the US had been waging a trade war through the Trump years. On the one hand, the TPP which was to be a trump card for the Obama administration has been relegated to being just a Wikipedia entry, and on the other, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which was China’s answer to the TPP is an inked deal.
So, how international trade will play out in the days to come will considerably depend on how Biden plays his political cards. The trade policy of a country is often dictated by what its foreign policy is. But the US is a big player, and what its trade policy is will have a bearing on how the supply chains of tomorrow work out.
In short, all plans about “fixing” supply chains will need to keep far too many political realities in mind.
The Biden example is just a case in point—in that it is not easy to get or give answers. The open-and-shut logic doesn’t work. Let’s only look at a few scenarios.
The China obsession: Ever since the covid-19 infectious disease seeped out of China and spread into a pandemic, China has been at the receiving end of global ire. The pandemic itself apart, the very existence of China being the heart of global manufacturing (textiles-apparel, included) has been called into question. All eggs need not be in the China basket, so went the contention. It’s a valid point, but the question also is whether the rest of the world is even geared up to spread itself thin. The world could step out of the 2008–09 global financial crisis not only because China manufactured for the globe, but also because the rest of the world was hopelessly inadequate in doing the needful. Realities have not changed much in the course of the current pandemic. China was the first to get back on its feet, while the rest of the world, particularly the US and UK, have been teetering. Deaths there have been spiralling and
social unrest have them in their throes. For brands and manufacturers to wriggle out of the Chinese stranglehold, other countries would have to deliver.
How much local is real: There are very few countries which in today’s world want to remain dependent on China. But how much of being local can indeed be a reality, or even just feasible? The reason why trade has existed for thousands of years is that not everything can be grown or produced everywhere. Not everything that comes out of China is 100 per cent Chinese. One needs to keep one fact in mind: China may well be the world’s largest exporter, but then it is also the world’s second largest importer of goods, services and commodities. Hemming in China into economic isolation is not only impractical, it can also have adverse effects on small, impoverished economies that depend on China for more reasons than one. True, every country must first take care of its own farmers and businesses. But again, these are not open-and-shut cases.
Greenwashing and fake news: Sustainability has a numbers problem. Credible numbers, that is. The oft-repeated statement about fashion being the second biggest polluter has long been debunked. The assertion never had any scientific basis and the origin of the allegation can no more be found. That does not mean that fashion is clean; in fact, far from it. It could well be the biggest polluter. But to address the issues of pollution, environmental degradation, etc one needs to have facts in hand. Real numbers. Yet, after scores of sustainability conventions and innumerable standards and tools, the industry still does not have enough numbers. This not only makes it difficult to address issues of sustainability, claims and counterclaims have created a veritable ground for greenwashing. The result is that countless surveys and studies get thrown around to be consumed without question. Very few of them can either stand up to statistical scrutiny or are simply unscientific. The industry needs more research, credible ones at that. Ones that are not beholden to sponsors with vested interests.
Nevertheless, it is not as dismal a situation as it may appear at first blush. There are many, many indeed, organisations and groups that have been doing cutting edge work—either through research or by means of innovations. Most of these are scattered, and are so small in nature that they get drowned in today’s media clutter. Then there are too many associations working on similar themes. There are as many awards as there are associations, and as many standards and tools. In other words, too many voices.
This, then, becomes a clarion call: for industry to sink differences and come together as one. Else, it would remain a Babel of voices.
This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of the print magazine.