The manufacturing landscape has altered considerably over the past several decades. In the 1960s, roughly 95 percent of apparel sold in the United States was manufactured domestically. Today, more than 97 percent of clothing and shoes Americans wear are made overseas. A similar change took place in Britain, where Richard Arkwright introduced a mechanical spinning machine that replaced human hands with wooden and metal cylinders, paving the way for the first industrial revolution in the 1760s. According to trade statistics, the United Kingdom imported 92.4 percent of its clothing in 2017, largely from developing economies.
Shifting production to distant countries with low-wage labor and even lower social and environmental standards has its risks, of course, which is why factory inspections have become an indispensable tool for managing risk—and safeguarding reputations—in the modern supply chain. But suppliers, faced with a proliferation of standards for measuring performance, frequently complain of “audit fatigue” because brands and retailers don’t always agree on the best framework.
American customers might want to use Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, while those from Europe may prefer certification by the Business Social Compliance Initiative, Ethical Trading Initiative or Social Accountability International, according to Hirdaramani Group, a Sri Lanka-based apparel manufacturer. Depending on the market, factories may have to comply with country-specific technical standards or tolerance limits for restricted substances. Brands and retailers have their own code of conducts suppliers are occasionally compelled to follow. And requirements can be obsessively granular, such as the height placements of fire extinguishers, which, again, can vary from customer to customer, Hirdaramani noted.