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in these days of social distancing and at-home hibernation, dont be
surprised to see the University of Delaware Prof. Sheng Lu popping up
everywhere in the next few weeks.
There he is in the Wall Street Journal and BBC World News, gravely
assessing the pandemics impact on clothing retailers and factories. And
here he is recently in Nikkei Asian Review, warning that the jobs of
millions of struggling apparel workers were suddenly unimaginably
about to vanish.
The stakes have never been so high, Lu said in the Asian Review. Lu is an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies
at UD, and a leading scholar on fashion economics and international
trade. In the course of a few short weeks, he has watched an entire
planet become paralyzed by sickness, shuttered markets, tattered supply
Put together, I think the impact on the industry will be huge, Lu
said from his home office in Newark, where he fields regular calls from
reporters, and closely watches the agonizing collapse of one of the
worlds most interconnected and interdependent industries, one that is
responsible for driving more than $1 trillion in revenue each year and
also adding mightily to the planets pollution.
Yet its also an industry that has lifted millions out of poverty
in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh and Cambodia and which now
threatens to drop them all back down into despair again.
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Prof. Sheng Lu
Its like nothing that Lu or anyone else has even seen, not even during the 2007-2009 global recession.
This time is a lot different, Lu said in a Zoom interview as UDs
historic virtual spring semester got under way. Its not a pure
economic issue this time, its a pandemic, and the retailers have shut
down. The businesses supplying those retailers have had to stop running
completely. The traditional economic tools wont work as well as in the
One of Lus colleagues at the Department of Fashion and Apparel
Studies is also keeping close watch on these unprecedented industry
dynamics. As co-founder of the Better Buying initiative that began at
UD, Prof. Marsha Dickson aims to improve the business relations between
apparel buyers and their suppliers, who frequently face poor working
conditions and financial pressures because of buyers business
In a recent survey, Dickson and her
colleagues found that buyers alarmed by the crisis are still making
unilateral decisions with little regard to how suppliers will be
affected canceling orders, for example, or reducing future orders
without regard to impact.
But the survey also found glimmers of hope: Dickson found evidence
signs that some buyers are collaborating with suppliers in ways that
ease the financial pressure, raising hope that these mutually beneficial
short-term approaches to the crisis might serve as a way forward.
Many brands and retailers are staying in very close touch with their
suppliers and collaborating with them to identify solutions that dont
involve cancelling orders, said Kelly Allen, strategic partnerships
manager for Better Buying.
Prof. Marsha Dickson is the Dr. Irma Ayers Professor of Human Services in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies.
Within the U.S., the most direct financial impact of the crisis has
been on retail workers, idled by the ongoing shutdown of
brick-and-mortar stores as non-essential businesses. Online shopping
remains an option, but typically accounts for just 10 percent of fashion
sales, making it an unlikely savior during a prolonged shuttering of
The reverberations of retails hard shutdown were quickly felt in the
factories and among the producers of raw materials all around the
world, Lu said. Compared to the last recession, there are far more
stakeholders now, in more developing countries, making it likely that
lower-income workers will be hit more broadly this time.
The crisis is aggravated by the relatively thin social safety nets in
those developing countries, and by the relatively few alternatives to
clothing factory jobs, he noted. In Cambodia, 70% of exports are
apparel-related, and in Bangladesh, its 80%. Female workers along
with their children will certainly be disproportionately affected in
those countries, Lu said.
For U.S. consumers, the industrys turmoil is likely to mean delays
in seeing new products and less variety in stores for the next two or
three years, Lu said. Retail prices on clothing and footwear also seem
likely to rise as factories scramble to rehire and retrain workers once
the pandemic has eased.
Ultimately, Lu said, the disruption may spark some structural changes
to what had become a complex web of supply chains, factories and shops,
each dependent on the other for survival. Some nations may move to
limit their exposure to the perils of globalization; others may further
diversify supply chains in an effort to safeguard trade flows, Lu said.
Article by Eric Ruth; photos by Kathy F. Atjkinson, Michael Levy and iStock
Published April 20, 2020