Employment quality in supply chains of circular fashion - a comparison of standards and practices of circular fashion enterprises & social sustainability targeting apparel players
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Resource depletion, environmental degradation and long-standing social challenges in apparel supply chains call for systemic change in the fashion industry. Among practitioners and academia, the emerging concept of the Circular Economy has been discussed to fulfil this promise. However, the discourse mostly evolves around environmental benefits. The social pillar of the Circular Economy remains largely unexplored with some attention paid to employment creation. How the Circular Economy can also benefit employment quality remains unclear. The aim of the present research was, therefore, to examine whether sustainable supply chain strategies in the apparel industry differ in their practices and standards for employment quality as a result of their orientation towards circularity or social sustainability. Thus, the theoretical architecture of the research was situated within sustainable supply chain management (SSCM), adapting the framework of (Seuring & Müller, 2008) and its extension by (Köksal, Strähle, Müller, & Freise, 2017). A qualitative, research design with inductive and deductive elements was employed. To respond to the research question, the supply chain strategies of 36 apparel companies publicly committing to a circular target initiative, and 63 members of a social compliance initiative were deductively compared through document analysis. Additional thematic analysis based on 14 in-depth interviews and 17 short questionnaire responses inductively delivered potential hypotheses for the results of the document analysis. The findings of the document analysis show that the strategies do not considerably differ beyond a minimum set of current best practice standards and practices as found among members of the leading social compliance initiative Fair Wear Foundation. Barriers and enablers were identified that potentially produce this industry-specific outcome. The circular strategic orientation was also found to trigger additional, yet isolated efforts for environmental sustainability. The results of this research overall reflect and confirm the underlying confusion of academia and practitioners about the link of the Circular Economy and employment quality. However, the findings suggest that the Circular Economy implicitly and unintentionally leads to a more holistic implementation. Yet, the environmental and social sphere are kept as separate functional units within the supply chain strategies. These findings contribute to the academic discourse by describing how the link between the Circular Economy and employment quality is currently translated and envisioned in apparel supply chains. Moreover, indications are given, which barriers have to be overcome to help define the social pillar of the Circular Economy for this industry.