The global pandemic and its impacts in 2020 have exposed many shortcomings of the textile and garment manufacturing industry and its global supply chains. As mills and machines were brought to a standstill last year, there was a lot of loss — of profits, revenues, and jobs — but also a reckoning that the industry needs to innovate to better equip itself to deal with challenges that the future may bring. In this article, Good Business Lab and The Mills Fabrica discuss innovation in the global textile and garment industry through two approaches. A first approach that takes a look at the past for learnings on how to manage anxieties, uncertainties and prioritize the welfare of the workforce which form the backbone of the industry during such testing times. And second, a forward-facing approach to identify innovative technologies to equip our factories for a more resilient future.
“WORKERS FIRST”: Navigating COVID-19 through Focusing on Workers Well-being in the Indian Garment Industry
The garment industry is labor-intensive and relies on human labor for operating sewing machines. With globalization giving companies access to cheaper international labor markets, most apparel brands today operate through a global supply chain. This arrangement was, in theory, a win-win situation where the brands got their products made at cheaper costs, and the supplying country was able to create employment at a mass scale. But in reality, such cheap labor often came at the cost of workers’ wellbeing. After years of outcries from labor rights activists on poor working conditions, today we are at a stage where many major brands have recognized the need for decent work. But it is far from a healthy or equal ecosystem, and some of its fault lines were exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Wrath of the Force Majeure
All contracts contain something called a "force majeure" clause which allows a party to not perform its obligations under events beyond anyone's powers. The COVID-19 pandemic evoked this clause. This meant that brands called back orders they’d placed for products, sometimes reneging on orders that were already made and ready to be shipped.
Manufacturing firms, activists, and journalists in developing countries that host factories employing workers appealed to brands to not do this. “The countries we supply to have welfare benefits and options to furlough their employees. But we don’t have those options here in India. How would we pay our workers if we do not have orders? That was the biggest hurdle.” says Anant Ahuja, CEO of Good Business Lab (GBL) and Head of Organizational Development at Shahi Exports, the largest manufacturer and exporter of readymade garments in India.
But soon enough, conversations and media spotlight pushed brands to undo their order cancellations. The Swedish brand H&M was the first to say that they will pay for their orders, and soon almost all others followed suit. They surely realized the value of a strong garment supply chain they have helped build over the years and are heavily dependent on.
The Great Lock Down
While the conversations with brands were underway, manufacturing firms in India shut due to a nationwide lockdown. All factories stayed closed for over a month — a period during which a lot of smaller firms could not pay their workforce, and some that permanently shut down due to lack of visibility on future orders and lower cash reserves. Migrant workers, who form a large section of workers in the industry, were stuck in cities due to the last-minute announcement about the national lockdown by the Government.
In Shahi Exports, which employs thousands of migrant workers, a majority of them remained in their hostels due to lack of time to plan their return home. A total of 77 percent of workers stayed back due to this reason according to the phone surveys we, at GBL, conducted with 560 female migrant workers in the month of April 2020 in collaboration with IDinsight, a global advisory and research organization. This situation caused concern for the management, migrant workers, and their family members. The management worked closely with the NGO which runs the hostels to vigorously inform and engage this group, and provide medical help and testing when necessary.
Running a Crowded Workplace during COVID
Since its beginnings after the industrial revolution, garment manufacturing has been a crowded affair. But once the orders were back, and government-induced lockdowns were lifted, for the first time, manufacturers had to find ways to run a factory with thousands of people in a way that an extremely contagious infection would not spread.
To help achieve this unprecedented feat, the Good Business Lab held a hackathon - a two-day intensive brainstorming session with people from research and the industry. We asked ourselves how to create an anxiety-free working environment once factories opened up after the lockdown. It helped put the worker at the center of preparations and protocols that were being established by the firms. Functioning in the new normal required not compliance, but understanding, cooperation, and solidarity from the workers. Hence, in addition to screening, providing masks, and sanitizers, there was a focus on the channels and manner of communication around the pandemic.
Some of the plans of action included:
i) providing a welcoming kit to all workers as they rejoined work that included masks for them and their family, sanitary pads, and Iron supplements for women;
ii) tapping into the informal communication network through WhatsApp groups for circulation of safety guidelines and important announcements;
iii) instead of just warnings and instructions, putting up calming images as posters in the premises;
iv) through various channels, reinforcing the message that the firm cares for them.
Preparing the workplace for the arrival of the workforce; Illustration: Siddhesh Gautam
Sewing Against All Odds
From May to August 2020, Good Business Lab surveyed 1815 rural households in the Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh — the sample from one of our ongoing surveys — to understand the impact of COVID-19 on their food security, financial health, and perceptions about migration. Forty percent of households reported changed perceptions about living and working in a big city compared to pre-COVID times. And of the households with changed preferences, 89 percent stated that they were less likely to migrate now, most of which was directly the effect of COVID and the lockdown.
But at the same time in the city, workers (including migrant workers who had not gone back home) worked against all odds during lockdown producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the country’s healthcare workers and after it, continuing their regular work like before. According to Ahuja, Shahi Exports lost only about 20 percent of its workforce due to COVID-19.
Using this opportunity to rethink what is possible; Illustration: Siddhesh Gautam
Though unfortunate, this pandemic may have been the right wake-up call to businesses to prioritize and start investing in the wellbeing of their workforce. “This kind of direct threat never existed before. It was the first time there was a situation in which if you did not prioritize the health and wellbeing of the workers, the factory would literally shut down,” says Ahuja. He believes that the garment industry, like all other industries, will now continue to invest in worker health systems, and innovate on factory design.
Even today, one of the biggest challenges that remain is the closure of factory creches (for safety reasons) that used to take care of childcare and make it possible for many women to come to work. This may have made going to work out of question for some mothers.
What happened in 2020 shows how important it is to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of workers in addition to improvements in technical aspects of production. It is a clarion call for innovation that aims to improve the lives of the workers that the industry employs.
“RESILIENCY FROM DIGITIZATION”: Technology to Empower Factories to Build a More Resilient Supply Chain
Resiliency and Digitization rose to prominence during the COVID-19 outbreak. Companies were actively looking for ways to maintain operations while supply chains halted; Videoconferencing became the only communication tool to monitor the diversely located offices and facilities. It has become imperative for brands and retailers to employ digitization to rebuild a resilient supply chain for any contingency.
In the report “COVID-19: Reconstructing the Apparel Value Chain – Towards Resilience and Digitization”, The Mills Fabrica has observed opportunities technology can help empower the apparel value chain including factories and their workers. For example, these include:
• Collaborative robots increase the efficiency of workers by freeing up their time for more important tasks
• UV disinfection robots enhance the safety of warehouse workers by disinfecting surfaces
• Cloud-based SaaS solutions enable remote inspections of factories to safeguard the interests of workers
Automating work processes allows workers at distribution centers to focus on other more important tasks while maintaining a safe social distance in the workplace. During the pandemic, American apparel brand Gap purchased additional AI-powered SORT robots from startup Kindred to sort the increasing number of e-commerce orders at its US distribution centers. This helps maintain its production capacity when lockdowns could lead to reduced manpower.
Kindred’s AI-powered SORT systems; Image courtesy of Kindred
UV Disinfection Robots
Keeping warehouses safe is crucial. The Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has collaborated with Ava Robotics to design an autonomous UV disinfection robot that can neutralize coronavirus on warehouse surfaces. As the robot operates itself, this prevents human exposure to UV light which has long been used in hospitals to kill germs.
A UV disinfection robot; Image courtesy of MIT News
Cloud-Based SaaS Solutions
The pandemic has called for enhanced transparency in operations. When travel bans were in full swing, cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions assisted remote inspections instead. For example, startup Inspectorio connected brands with their suppliers on its SaaS platforms to cocreate COVID-19 workplace readiness guidelines. The guidelines helped monitor in real-time how well manufacturing facilities were prepared before they reopened. This allows international brands and retailers to continue monitoring their factories which are usually located in distant regions in Asia.
Inspectorio’s SaaS platforms; Image courtesy of Inspectorio
Equally important is reskilling the workforce so that manufacturing workers can be equipped with the necessary skills for the future of digital supply chain. More companies see digitization as an opportunity to train up workers. For example, e-commerce giant Amazon’s 16-week certificate program helps employees from fulfillment centers develop a new skill and potentially acquire higher wages.
It is hoped that new technologies not only help bolster the overall operations of factories but also empower manufacturing workers to become more highly skilled and future-proof.
To plan for a more resilient industry in 2021, the goal should be twofold: to strengthen our factories with better technology that will enable us to deal better with future uncertainties, and to pay attention to the needs and concerns of workers and work towards their welfare. This formula is essential for innovation that will be sustainable and would reap the most benefit to businesses as well as the labor which lies at the bottom of the supply chain and is the wealth of developing nations.
About Good Business Lab
Good Business Lab is an independent not-for-profit labor innovation organization that uses rigorous academic research to build the business case for worker wellbeing programs. We believe it is the most sustainable way to transform labor markets and enable all workers to live dignified lives. Our research falls under five focus areas: unlocking female labor; closing the skills gap; improving the work environment; and building holistic health. Details on our projects are available here: https://www.goodbusinesslab.org/projects.
About The Mills Fabrica
The Mills Fabrica is an open platform for technology and lifestyle (“Techstyle”) innovations in industries like apparel/ textiles and ag/ food. The Mills Fabrica consists of an incubator, VC fund, and an innovation space/ lab/ store. Fabrica’s mission is to invest in and support companies that will accelerate the transition into a more sustainable future through innovation and to become a “go-to” platform for Techstyle innovation. For additional information, please visit http://www.themillsfabrica.com
 Decent work, ILO: https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/decent-work/lang--en/index.htm
 Forbes, March 2020. ‘The True Cost Of Brands Not Paying For Orders During The COVID-19 Crisis’
 World Economic Forum, March 2020. ‘In the age of automation, technology will be essential to reskilling the workforce’