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Can the Fashion Supply Chain be a Model for PPE Sector?


When facing a tough challenge, it can help to look at the experience of others who have been in equally dire situations. A Johns Hopkins scholar suggests the personal protective equipment (PPE) market, disrupted by the pandemic, could take a cue from a surprising source.

Blogging for The Conversation, Tinglong Dai, associate professor of operations management and business analytics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, noted that other countries, notably South Korea and New Zealand, have not faced the same dire shortages of PPE as has the United States. As a result, he said, those countries have experienced far fewer COVID-19-related deaths in environments such as nursing homes.

“The shortage of PPE in the United States has gone on for months and is expected to exacerbate in a second wave of COVID-19 pandemic,” Dai wrote, “due to structural issues in the U.S. medical supply chain.” He suggested that “those involved in the medical supply chain have a lot to learn from perhaps a surprising place: the fashion industry.”

That is indeed surprising, and not simply because most PPE products don’t exactly scream “haute couture” or even “fast fashion.” But also because the apparel sector has experienced its own major supply chain disruptions. These have included allegations of worker exploitation as well as horrific examples of unsafe working conditions.

Dai argued the PPE supply chain can learn from steps the apparel industry has taken to address the latter problem. “The fashion industry embarked on an effort to improve supply chain transparency through the Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks major brands by how much they know about where and how their products are made and to what extent they are willing to share such information with the public,” he wrote. “Since its inception in 2017, the average transparency scores of the nearly 100 brands included have increased by 12 points, with more brands disclosing through corporate publications their processing facilities, raw material suppliers and other crucial supply chain information.”

The index highlights steps the fashion industry takes to identify and address supply chain weaknesses before they can become disruptive. “A transparency index for the medical supply chain might not be as comprehensive but, at a minimum, would need to measure how transparent PPE manufacturers are about their crucial supply chain information,” Dai noted. “This level of end-to-end transparency is important because the production of specialized PPE such as N95 masks depends on crucial materials the U.S. currently has little capacity to produce.”

In addition to allowing stakeholders to more quickly identify potential problems, Dai said greater supply chain transparency could lead to more domestic production of PPE.

Issues around the PPE supply chain are not likely to go away any time soon. As the headline of a recent report stated: “PPE demand set to soar as world wakes up to long-term reality of coronavirus.”