The Business of Fashion

Looking at Fashion from the Business Perspective


Whenever I go to a conference, people ask me what I do. I usually have two answers in mind, but you’d be surprised at the different responses I get. If I tell them I’m in the business of fashion, their eyes light up. The conversation thereafter will usually be about the glamour, the clothes, the models and which brands they all love and wear. This is usually followed by questions on which brands do I distribute, work for or design for. And then, I tell them the truth - I make clothes. I’m a manufacturer. That’s the business I’ve been in over the last 16 years (and gotten pretty good at). I’m amused, however, at how this projects a different response. What comes up next are usually about how hard it must be like as it’s a labour intensive industry. Most of what they say is their perception of textile manufacturing. How the media has shown the collapse of factories in Bangladesh, how children are exploited in third world countries and how inhumane life is in these sweatshops.

Labour standards and corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the fashion industry have come under some scrutiny in recent times, and through this article, I’d like to take a deeper look at how CSR and sustainability will be the key to long term success for fashion brands and retailers.

Globalisation has indeed changed many industries, and the apparel industry is no different. With brands now often dispersed geographically, manufacturing, distribution and retail operations are split across several different regions and countries. Retailers today have to meet global corporate standards for safety, labour, sustainability, quality of product and so forth. They also have to make sure that their supply chain standards are adhered to and maintained. But change is not just being driven by the retailers and brands. Brand owners, retailers as well as manufacturers have come to understand that CSR and sustainability go hand-in-hand with commercial longevity. After all, one picture of a child working in the facility, or of workers fainting from heat will destroy many years of work that fashion brands have spent time and money to build.

It is therefore vital for CSR and sustainability to be enforced together as part of the wider globalisation strategy. It should be the objective of each reputable brand and its respective manufacturer (or, indeed, manufacturers) to collaborate to enforce compliance throughout the supply chains. But brands and manufacturers can sometimes be like yin and yang. Both sides have vested interests in maximising commercial interests. The only way to do this is to rethink and evolve supply chain partnerships. This will mean fashion brands and retailers have to treat manufacturers not as suppliers, but as long term strategic partners. Many brands are already doing so. Behind the successful delivery of each fashion runway show, there are now closer partnerships and tie-ups. This involves sharing business plans openly and sharing strategic supply chain resources, so that all parties will put in effort to drive CSR within each process in the supply chain. This is the business of fashion that was neglected and now being enforced today.

As CSR evolves alongside our supply chain, more forward-looking brands and manufacturers are moving towards to the next mega-trend of our times. The issue of sustainability has now become increasingly integrated into businesses across many industries, and within the apparel supply chain itself. Although this shift is often initially driven by compliance issues with regulations and laws, not to mention reputational risk management, companies are also beginning to see value in embracing sustainability in terms of their access to resources, efficiency and innovation across their supply chains and brand value. A robust sustainability strategy can also provide the focus, information and solutions necessary to be a resilient enterprise in a rapidly evolving and volatile world and to address and adapt to the changing needs of consumers, resource constraints and overall unpredictability.

But let’s be honest. While sustainability is without a doubt a business opportunity, it is fraught with challenges and uncertainties. As such, it is a journey that requires effort, no matter the size of the business, and it takes time. What is essential is to act and to start in areas where positive results can be achieved. This, while sounding straightforward, is not necessarily so. Even myself as a manufacturer, when I look through the lens of sustainability, I see that businesses touch the environment and deal with people and communities at every step of their complex supply chains. Thus, prioritisation and focus are essential. Change is challenging at the best of times and implementing sustainability strategies will demand some degree of change across the company, which in turn, demands strong leadership.

The key idea is to recognise that sustainability is not just going to be an important element of competitiveness, but being a responsible company will indeed make an impact among the community, our sector and our planet that we exist in. If this is truly the big idea of the next century, then perhaps we should start preparing ourselves now, with focused little steps, and recognising that we will get there eventually.


Mark Lee
Textile and Fashion Federation (Singapore)

This article is brought to you by the Textile and Fashion Federation (Singapore)

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