Negative feedback loops help maintain systems within safe limits. Feedback loops and they focus on keeping undesirable factors under control by looking at the output of the system and reducing it (hence the term ‘negative’) to keep the system in check. In the case of the fashion and textile sector these impact-reducing loops are provided by legislation or pressure from consumers and NGOs.
Negative feedback loops, maintain systems within safe limits
Rafts of new European legislation including IPPC, REACH and producer responsibility ‘take back’ legislation which requires companies to take their products back from consumers at the end of their lives (already on the statute book for electronic products and likely to be extended to other sectors) – are all negative feedback loops and act to reduce the impact of industry.
Other examples include codes of conduct, effectively lobbied for by a number of campaigning groups including Labour Behind the Label and Oxfam, which have acted to promote workers’ rights by controlling the amount of overtime worked and by safeguarding pay, working conditions and the right to join a union. Yet negative feedback loops are only effective if they are as strong as the impacts they are trying to keep in check. New business pressures such as the push to supply ‘value’ clothes and reduce lead times are ratcheting up the level of impact.
In the last five years, for example, the lead times expected by big retailers and global brands from their suppliers have been cut by 30 per cent.49 This prevents long-term planning by supplier factories and fuels a cycle of lowering labour standards as workers are forced into unpaid overtime to meet deadlines, frequently on temporary contracts.
This has resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of labour standards and prices as countries compete for contracts from leading brands and retailers, and an increased level of ‘throwaway’ consumption – the average UK consumer today buys up to one third more textiles and garments than four years ago.50 To continue to be effective and keep impacts in check, the strength of codes and regulations will have to increase (with ever more prescriptive legislation) unless we address issues to do with consumption and relationships between brands and suppliers in other ways.
There is, for example, a loop of positive feedback around encouraging the growth of sustainable fashion. The more consumer interest there is in environmental and social issues, the more products will be offered by fashion companies keen to have a share of the market. This increased choice and raised profile leads to more consumer interest in the issues and greater demand for sustainable products. And so the loop goes on, positively reinforcing this market.
EDUN, the clothing brand set up by Ali Hewson, wife of rock star Bono, uses positive feedback loops to effect change. EDUN focuses on poverty reduction through trade and sustainable employment, especially in Africa. One of its recent campaigns ‘One’51 focuses on supporting the precarious clothing industry in Lesotho through a combination of trade and aid. The removal of global import quotas in the textile sector in 2005 left a number of countries such as Lesotho that built great dependency on the textile and clothing industry in the era of quotas, at risk of widespread economic hardship.
In Lesotho, for instance, the clothing sector accounts for around 40 per cent of national jobs. The positive feedback loop is established by providing factories in Lesotho with guaranteed work, which then creates more jobs and raises more people out of poverty, which in turn increases Lesotho’s industry and capacity to work.
Further, a quarter of the ticket price of EDUN’s Lesotho-made One T-shirts is ploughed back into AIDS prevention and medicines for the factory workers AIDS claiming the lives of around 2300 of Lesotho’s garment workers each year. Another positive feedback loop is created by Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization that provides ‘a world community’ of entrepreneurcraftspeople with access to programmes of product design, production and business skills to strengthen their businesses and ultimately to build selfreliance and support families, communities and livelihoods. Here the loop is initiated by information: the more knowledge of the market Aid to Artisans can provide an entrepreneur, the more products that are sold and the more self-reliance fostered in the community.
This then leads to more knowledge and experience of the market and helps the entrepreneur grow their business. Aid to Artisans’ work spans more than 140 artisan groups, helping them to create sustainable businesses. The Sharan Craft Centre (SCC) in Armenia, for example, gained design assistance from Aid to Artisans as a fledgling enterprise and is now a fully independent and thriving children’s knitwear business with an annual turnover of US$600,000, employing over 400 artisans, to whom it pays an average wage over 50 per cent higher than the average national wage.