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Workplace learning reflection: supply chain and workplace transformation

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INTRODUCTION:

This paper intends to critically reflect upon the internship experience I have gathered in Organisation X (pseudonym), as a compulsory part of the Bachelor of Global Studies degree. The purpose of the internship is to gain observations and real life experience in a professional workplace. The aim of this assessment is to critically reflect upon the internship experience, mainly on ‘ the global in work’ dimension of the organisation, as part of an ethnographic research on the topic. This assessment also aims to discuss the skills development experienced during the internship, relating to the Bachelor of Global Studies degree and the Global Work Project subject. The paper will draw on recorded personal observations in the organisation, as well as materials and information collected from a semi-structured interview with a colleague in the organisation. For privacy purposes, pseudonyms will be used for both the organisation and the interviewee, and they will remain anonymous throughout the reflection. This reflection will be based on ethnographic data collected by observing and participating in groups in an organisation (Neyland 2018), in order to form a thorough investigation of the workplace with first hand information including behaviours of workers. This paper will begin with a brief introduction of the organisation including relevant background information, as well as my role and duties in the organisation as an intern. Then, a discussion of aspects of ‘ the global in work’ that I have observed during my internship will be included, focusing on issues of supply chains and workplace transformation, that were discussed in the Workplace Observation Protocol assessment. Lastly, an analysis of skills developed during the internship experience will be included, summarising the experience gained from the internship.

THE ORGANISATION AND INTERNSHIP ROLE:

I undertook my internship at Organisation X two days per week for a period of six weeks as a research intern at the organisation’s main office located in Surry Hills. Organisation X was established by a non-profit organisation named Ethical Consumers Australia in 2014, and is owned by the founding staffs and Ethical Consumers Australia jointly. Organisation X provides reliable and transparent ethical fashion brand ratings, that has a mission to create social impacts. The organisation aims to empower consumers to take actions on the issues they care about, including climate change, labour exploitation and animal testing. The Organisation X app aims to help consumers find the brands and products that cater for their values and needs, while utilising the power of these shoppers to make the fashion industry more ethical and transparent by promoting ethical and sustainable fashion brands to users. Organisation X connects consumers who would like to make positive fashion choices with brands that positively address ethical, sustainable and fairness issues (Organisation X 2018).

The first version of Organisation X’s brand ratings system was developed in 2015, while the Organisation X app was launched a few months later. The app was launched in the US and Canada in 2017, and expanded to Europe in mid-2018. The app now includes over 2000 ethical brand ratings, ranging from small brands to mainstream labels. Organisation X app does not only rate brands on certification schemes, but also actions that brands claim to take, to ensure the fairness of rating results.

My role at Organisation X as an intern mainly involved desk research on fashion brands and rating these brands according to Organisation’s rating methodologies. Its rating system focuses on measuring impacts that the brand creates on people, planet and animals, using certification schemes and brands’ own commitments and policies. I have also conducted desk research on fabrics that have gained increasing occurrence in the fashion industry. Most research performed were secondary research, with all information gathered from online sources. As I progressed in the internship, I was asked to take on the role of verifying brand ratings conducted by other staff members, mainly by volunteers. Furthermore, I have gained many valuable skills through the internship, especially my research skills. Therefore, I will start volunteering for the organisation after exam period, performing the same tasks.

THE GLOBAL IN WORK:

SUPPLY CHAINS

Fashion companies are decentralising their supply chains globally, as globalisation emerges and competition has intensified (Nagurney & Yu 2012). Outsourcing of supply chains are often seen as a main competence (Kempainen & Vepsalainen 2003), as it greatly reduces costs of material and manufacturing. Decentralisation of supply chains has created both positive and negative impacts globally. Although many local communities have been benefited by this trend, with increasing job opportunities and local development, and countries are more interconnected. The action of outsourcing of garment production to countries with lower labour cost that are mainly located in Asia, are being criticised to create negative social and environmental impacts, including pollution, labour exploitation and child labour (Freise & Seuring 2015). My supervisor Peter (pseudonym) believes that globalisation has caused problems, mainly due to the expansion of supply chains.

26th August Interview with Peter: The expansion of supply chains can be very much interlinked with the expansion cause by globalisation. Since the 1970s, when big retailers shifted most of their sourcing to Asia because of the extremely low prices (realized through economies of scale and wage arbitrage) it has meant an ever increasing complexity of global supply chains. Because of this, it becomes harder for a brand to manage issues, as they could have hundreds of suppliers located over 50 countries, and that is just the final stage of production, and each of the impacts occurs ultimately by the supplier.”

Most fast fashion brands have outsourced their production to countries with cheaper costs, resulting in endemic sustainability issues that occur in fast fashion systems (Rafi-Ul-Shan 2018). Fast fashion brands are often under pressures of reducing cost and keeping up with fashion trends, leading to poorly managed production practices including environmental pollution and worker exploitation (Rafi-Ul-Shan 2018). The countries where most fast fashion garments are produced in often have lower social standards and environmental regulations compared to the home market of the retailer. Fabrics used are also less environmentally friendly in terms of water usage when washed, in order to reduce more costs. As supply chains are distributed to different countries, carbon emissions generated from product shipments becomes another concerning issue. H&M, for example, identified that 51% of its carbon imprint in 2009 was generated from transportation (Guardian 2010).

When I asked my supervisor about supply chain issue that he is most concerned about, he believes that the issues are unable to be addressed by suppliers because of the tight margins.

26th September Interview with Peter: I think one of the biggest issues with fashion supply chains (and similar sectors such as cosmetics and food) is that despite the fact that most problems across environment, people and animals are embedded in the supply chain, suppliers are operating on such tight margins that they can not address them. Suppliers can not implement initiatives to reduce those emissions as their operating margins are so squeezed by large brands who want to push down the price on their products. So you are caught in this spiral where demand for products increases, which increases pressure on supply chains, but suppliers need to focus on meeting this growth.”

Although I was aware of these supply chain issues before commencing my internship at Organisation X, I was able to gain more insights into these issues with the assistant of knowledge I have acquired while rating fashion brands.

23th August: It seems like that Organisation X’s rating system focuses greatly on supply chains, especially targeting brands that have outsourced their productions. I have just realised how hypocritical brands can be, saying that they are making positive changes in their supply chains, but they are only words. I feel like I am able to see through these brands’ covers now, with the help of the rating system.”

However, after gaining more experience in brand research and ratings, I have discovered that decentralisation of supply chains mainly created negative impacts on people, planet and animals. Although a small number of ethical brands outsource their production to developing countries, purely for the purpose of creating positive social impacts for the area, it is difficult for majority brands, due to many reasons including strong competitions and financial difficulties.

CASUALISATION AND WORKPLACE TRANSFORMATION

The second dimension of global in work that I observed during the internship was workplace transformation, both on its workplace culture and environment. Gottschalk and McEachern (2010) state that traditional casual employment that were used to cater for a special need including peak periods or unpredictable demands. However, workplace casualisation has become a common phenomenon in developed countries, that helps employers to reduce labour costs and increase flexibility. However, it is evident that casual employees often receive less training than permanent employees, which will result in lower rates of future wages growth for casual employees (Mooi-Reci & Wooden 2018).

Drawing on my experience at Organisation X, there are only two full time employees who are in the main office everyday, with one of them being the co-founder, but there is also a paid intern who works five days a week. The co-founder is located in Melbourne, working part time at home, while the system developer is located overseas, working part-time on maintaining the rating system and the app. Organisation X relies heavily on unpaid works undertook by volunteers, mainly brand research tasks.

As Organisation X is currently only a small start-up, employing casual employees and volunteers will greatly reduce the labour costs. The flexibility of casual employment also helps employees to seek a better balance between their professional and personal life (Riquelma 2004). A female casual employee is working part-time as she has two young children to look after and need to devote most of her time on her family.

When I asked Peter about the advantages and disadvantages of having a workforce consisting of a large number of volunteers and casual employees, he spoke on a company’s point of view, providing a more thorough view on the topic.

26th September Interview with Peter: This means despite the fact we have very little money we can scale the organization and increase our impact despite minimal resources. But relying on unpaid volunteers to scale the organization is not ethical and it’s one thing we want to change when we can. The other is that volunteers may not always turn up or may just suddenly disappear which can put urgent work at risk.”

Organisation X has adopted a modern workplace culture that is very casual and relaxed, staff members are able to make themselves comfortable by dressing in casual outfits and work in flexible hours. I was very surprised to see a professional workplace that is so comfortable to work in, as I have always imagined workplaces to be so strict on attires and working hours. Having such experience definitely widened my eyes and helped me realised what kind of workplace I would like to work at in the future.

16th August: I really like Organisation X’s workplace culture. Peter said that his previous workplace is very casual, too. But I have not really come across a professional workplace that is so relaxed and casual. It is so comfortable to work at! Most people here seem to be volunteers, and they all just come in for a few hours a week.”

While this workplace culture is still very new for me, Peter views the issue with a more insightful view.

26 September Interview with Peter: People are increasing realizing that to be productive at work you need to have a work/life balance. Flexible working hours, less rules on attire are all part of a modern workplace even in the corporate world. Businesses that look after their workers and make them happy will succeed more than those that stare at a screen bored all day.”

SKILLS DEVELOPMENT IN THE INTERNSHIP:

The other aim of both the internship and this assessment task was to identify and record skill development throughout the internship experience, that are related to both the Global Studies course and my major (Management Studies). Firstly, as Organisation X worked closely with the topic of globalisation, I was able to utilised my knowledge acquired from subjects I have undertaken in the course, especially from the Global Governance subject. The ability of understanding how global phenomena plays out in different countries that I have developed in the subject has assisted me greatly, when I was rating fashion brands, as I had to consider how differently the effects might be in different countries. My awareness of global issues that has developed throughout the course has also assisted me in the internship, as it is very relevant to issues caused by globalisation that are related to brand research tasks, especially on outsourcing of supply chains, as it leads to many global issues including labour exploitation and pollution.

22th August: This is the second week of my internship and I seem to be getting the hang of the tasks! Many things that I come across when rating brands seem familiar, especially information about the environment that I have learnt in Global Governance last year. My research for the subject’s assignments are pretty useful, too. At least it helped me understand government policies that might take me ages to understand if I didn’t know anything about it.”

Secondly, I was able to further develop my research skills that I was lacking on. Although I have improved my research skills a lot throughout the Global Studies course, I found myself struggling to perform research tasks individually because English is my second language. My main goal of the internship was to improve my individual research skill. I was mainly assigned with research tasks during my internship, both on brands and fabrics. It was challenging at the beginning of the internship, as I was very slow when reading information online and filtering out contents, but I was able to progress more in my internship and rate brands in a much shorter timeframe at the end of the internship.

15th August: Started my internship today, but to be honest it was pretty challenging. There are so much information to read to rate a brand and I was only able to complete two brands today. Although my supervisor Peter said I am doing well, I still felt really bad because I was so slow. Everyone at work seems to know so well at what they are doing. Hopefully I will be much faster at rating brands tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to utilise management skills I have gained from my major, as I was mainly performing tasks individually. Most of the time, there are only 4-5 staff in the office (including me) when I intern there every week, with every staff working on different tasks, so it will be very unlikely to have the opportunity to apply management skills in this setting. It would have been very helpful if I was able to apply skills acquired from my major, as it is very difficult to utilise management skills in a professional setting at the moment, due to my lack of experience working in a professional workplace.

30th August: Just finished my third week of the internship. Everything is going smoothly and I am getting along really well with everyone at work. I am much faster at rating brands now, roughly 30 minutes for a small brand, and I feel so accomplished! It’s a pity that there are no tasks related to management, so I probably won’t be able to apply any skills learnt in my major to my tasks.”

Although the internship provided me with opportunities to improve on my current skill set, including research skills and knowledge acquired from the Global Studies course, I did not find myself developing new skills. I did utilise interpersonal and communication skills with my colleagues, but due to the fact that everyone was busy working on tasks independently, I was only able to apply these skills when small-talking with colleagues. It will be preferable if I could improve my communication and interpersonal skills in a professional setting, but it is not a very concerning issue for me as I have many years of experience working in retail and hospitality that are customer-facing.

Overall, the skill set that I was able to utilise during the internship was limited because I was assigned with mainly desk research on brands. I did not have many opportunities to perform other tasks, and the internship experience would have been much more valuable if I was able to work on some project research regarding ethical and sustainability issues. I do wish to expand my skill set further as I start volunteering for Organisation X, especially problem solving skills and conflict resolution, as they are extremely important skills to obtain in professional workplaces.

CONCLUSION:

In conclusion, I have truly enjoyed the internship experience at Organisation X and I am very thankful to have received this opportunity. I have gained experience of working in a professional workplace and performing tasks individually. Also, I have had a taste of working in a start-up with a modern and relaxed workplace culture, which I might not be able to experience without this opportunity. After the internship, I have discovered that I am not particularly interested in an office job and I now have a clearer expectation of my future job. Although I have not utilised many skills or knowledge acquired while undertaking the Management Studies major, I have further developed my research skills and knowledge from core subjects of the Global Studies course, which was my main goal that I wished to achieve during this internship.

REFERENCES:

  • Freise, M. & Seuring, S. 2015, ‘ Social and environmental risk management in supply chains: a survey in the clothing industry’, Logistics Research , vol. 8 no. 2, pp. 1-12.
  • Gottschalk, L. & McEachern, S. 2010, ‘ The frustrated career: casual employment in higher education’, Australian Universities’ Review, vol. 52, iss. 1, pp. 37-50.
  • Guardian 2010, Company profile for H & M , viewed 20 October 2018, .
  • Interview with Peter Smith (pseudonym) – 26 September 2018
  • Journal Entry – Crystal Lu
  • Kempainen, K. & Vepsalainen, A. 2003, ‘ Trends in industrial supply chains and networks’, International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management , vol. 33, no. 8, pp. 701-719.
  • Mooi-Reci, I. & Wooden, M. 2017, ‘ Casual employment and long-term wage outcomes’, Human Relations , vol. 70, iss. 9, pp. 1064-1090.
  • Nagurney, A. & Yu, M. 2012, ‘ Sustainable fashion supply chain management under oligopolistic competition and brand differentiation’, International Journal of Production Economic , vol. 135, iss. 2, pp. 532-540.
  • Neyland, D. 2008, ‘ Introduction’, in D. Neyland (ed.) Organizational ethnography , Sage, London, pp. 69-99.
  • Organisation X 2018, About us , viewed 17 October 2018.
  • Rafi-Ul-Shan, P. M. 2018, ‘ Relationship between sustainability and risk management in fashion supply chains’, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management , vol. 46, iss. 5, pp. 466-486.
  • Riquelme, G. 2004, ‘ Workplace transformations and their impact on people and families’, Convergence , vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 15-21.
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