COVID-19 and what we’ve learned

Prama Bhardwaj, founder and CEO of Mantis World, outlays how COVID-19 has changed the supply chain and the way business is done in our industry – perhaps for the better?

What a difference a few weeks have made. None of us could have predicted how dramatically and quickly our lives would change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost overnight, many businesses in our industry closed or saw regular demand plummet. Many have successfully adapted to supply workwear or PPE, while others have seen business increase for e-commerce clients.

The way we do business has also changed. With so many of us working from home, offices have closed and we suddenly rely on virtual meetings. The crashing together of our personal and professional lives has been an instant leveller as we get a peek into each other’s homes, we’ve all had calls where someone’s dog appears suddenly or we can hear the kids yelling in the background.  It reminds us, no matter where you are in the world, that we are the same, whether you’re the client, the supplier or the colleague.

In fact, we seem to be speaking more to each other than we were pre-lockdown. Some of these changes will last. It no longer makes sense to drive hundreds of miles or fly to another country to meet face to face. It’s far cheaper and efficient to have that meeting online, making presentations over shared screens. And while, of course, we did this pre-lockdown, now it has become the only way and the efficiency gains are undeniable.

Reflect on priorities

This pause has also given us a chance to reflect on our priorities. Time with our family and friends is suddenly more precious than ever. We value our parks and outdoor spaces and have all felt the benefit of the dramatic drop in pollution, hearing birdsong and having almost no traffic on the roads. We have become bakers, musicians, gardeners and crafters – not missing shopping trips to buy endless amounts of things we don’t really need. On a personal note, I’m watching with curiosity as I let my grey hair grow out – albeit rather than looking like the distinguished wise woman I had envisaged, I seem to be rocking the Cruella de Vil look. Some of these changes will last too – I hope.

Part of our industry has suffered as live events are cancelled, as are promotions calling for disposable, single-use products. We are incredibly thankful that Mantis World does not fall into this category. With the surge in demand for comfortable, sustainable, high-quality clothing, suitable for working from home, Mantis’ adults wear fits the bill for many. There’s been a boom in online retail following the closure of shops, and with people keen to support small local businesses, personalised babywear also has done exceptionally well, with customers opting for Babybugz as the organic market leaders.

A recent Mckinsey survey of 116 sourcing executives found that ‘the majority of fashion stakeholders believe that some core sustainability trends have been accelerated by the current crisis. More than 70% see closer partnerships with suppliers increasing and more than 60% believe that sustainable materials will become mainstream.’

Unequal balance of power

The crisis has laid bare the unequal balance of power between different actors on the supply chain. Most of the clothing this industry relies on is made in countries with the fewest resources, with many people living in conditions that make social distancing impossible.

In the west, our governments have provided businesses support in the form of furlough schemes, grants and loans – most countries in the developing world have little or no support. There certainly are brands, both fashion and promo, who have gone to great lengths over the years to be seen as ethical, yet are cancelling orders already shipped or demanding massive discounts from their suppliers.

We don’t believe those at the start of the supply chain with the least power should sacrifice the most. At Mantis World, we have promised not to cancel any orders already produced or in the pipeline, nor will we ask for discounts. In a post-COVID world, suppliers will remember this and will, we think, be more open for a diverse number of smaller clients rather than relying on one or two large ones who call all the shots. And it’s not just the suppliers, consumers will also be watching how their trusted brands have acted during the crisis. We are also very thankful that we are not answerable to shareholders looking only at financial profit, we can put our values into practice as we embrace the other two aspects of the triple bottom line: People and Planet – as well as Profit.

Sourcing and development

Sourcing and product development will change too. The lockdown in China has disrupted many supply routes and in the future diversity of supply will be key, with more nearshoring opening up and avoiding over-reliance on one region.

I believe brands also have a chance to look at their launches and ask themselves how much sense there is in launching thousands of new products every year. The crisis has shown the fast fashion model of constantly bringing in new product at cheap prices is broken, with many brands now stuck with irrelevant styles they can’t carry over to next year. Much of our sourcing and product development will happen digitally, and brands who stick with the same trusted supply partners will find that the years spent understanding each other will result in a fairer share of the development and approval process.

It normally takes at least six to nine months to develop, manufacture, market and distribute a new product. In this crisis, it took us four weeks to get organic face masks to market, showing just what we can achieve when we communicate well with each other, our suppliers and our distributors.

With most of the team on furlough, our 20-year-old company feels like a start-up again, with a small team in place and everyone pitching in. Our financial controller has become an expert in order processing and customer service, and at points, I have had to be tech support (Anyone who knows me will understand the irony of this). I think the cost-cutting strategies put in place by businesses may well continue as we realise the efficiencies to be gained.

Sustainability on the agenda

We firmly believe that sustainability will be high on the agenda once the crisis abates. Looking back at the origins of the pandemic, it strikes me that a disregard of nature is responsible. SARS, Ebola and even Mad Cow Disease all originated from the same issue, our treatment of animals in particular – shipping wildlife across the globe, eating animals we shouldn’t be and destroying habitats causing human-wildlife conflict.

The next crisis may well be an environmental one. Years of industrial conventional agriculture has degraded soil across the world – it’s estimated we only have 60 years of topsoil left, having huge implications on how we can feed ourselves. And we cannot forget that we are living through a climate crisis, causing more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.

In this pause, we have had time to reflect on our actions, and how our buying decisions can help ease the burden on the environment. Sustainability is not going out of fashion any time soon and we all have a responsibility to look at what we purchase and how we live our lives. If such huge adjustments can be made in response to the pandemic, certainly some adjustments can be made to help both the planet and the lives of all who live on it.

Just maybe, the gentler, more sustainable and collaborative way of doing business that I have been advocating is now within our grasp.

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