Transparency doesn’t judge your fashion brand – people do

About 100 people have touched a garment before it ends up in a store. Who are these people, where do they make our clothes? And how? Most consumers have no idea.

And sadly, most fashion brands don’t know either. But things are changing. There’s an increasing awareness across the industry that in order to move towards sustainable fashion, it’s of utmost importance to know what’s happening in the supply chain. It’s why the term ‘transparency’ is the buzzword of the fashion industry.

But let’s not just use this buzzword like it’s another fashion trend. Let’s be clear about the role of transparency in our shared efforts to move the world towards a more sustainable fashion industry.

This long read is an introduction to the serie Transparency in Fashion
Written by Nanette Hogervorst, founder fashion platform Our World, and Camilla Morandi, Global Sustainability graduate at the University of Utrecht.

Collection of the brand ASKET. One of the front runners in the area of transparency in fashion. An interview with one of the founders of the brand will follow later in this series

Why we address transparency in fashion? Whether it’s climate impact, working conditions or the lack of model diversity, the fashion industry has been under fire for several years now. A growing group of consumers – and even people within the industry itself – have been increasingly pressing for change. The big question is ‘how’? This six-part series explores the call for more transparency in fashion, as increasingly transparency is thrown into the mix when talking about making fashion sustainable. But what does transparency in fashion really mean? We describe some of the latest trends and developments in the area of transparency in fashion among consumers, lawmakers, businesses and look at innovations. We conclude with an introduction to the interviews that will follow in the next few weeks.

Although transparency is linked with sustainability, we’d like to start this article by making clear that transparency doesn’t require a fashion brand to be sustainable. Transparency is about knowing and making every aspect of a business’ supply chain visible and traceable. What you then see, is the reality of what’s happening in a brand’s supply chain, whether that is positive, negative or anything in between. Therefore, at Our World, we’d like to think of transparency as being the foundation essential for building any sustainable brand. The rationale behind it is simple: When brands don’t know what’s happening in their supply chain, it’s impossible for them to measure and know their impact on the environment, people and animals. Consequently, they also lack the knowledge on what to improve and in what part of their supply chain. In other words, transparency allows brands to improve and make their operations more sustainable.

Another change needed in our collective thinking is realising that transparency is neutral. It only reveals what was (perhaps) invisible before. It doesn’t judge your fashion brand – people do. Therefore, we believe trust is key if we want the fashion industry to achieve greater or even full transparency.

Transparency – a communications dilemma

Transparency should matter to brands first and foremost. They are the ones that should start mapping out their entire supply chain, identify what should be improved and act accordingly. During this process, brands should also strategically think about what to disclose publicly, via what channels, in what format, when and for whom. This makes transparency not only a sustainability challenge, but equally as much a communications dilemma. Is it necessary to tell consumers about every step in the fashion supply chain, just for the sake of transparency? Or should brands only tell what’s relevant for consumers? And who decides what’s relevant? If brands publish suppliers on their website, would a plain list of company names sufficient? Or should it contain more information, like contact details of these suppliers?

Brands also become more vulnerable to the judgement of the public when they are fully transparent. It becomes easier for stakeholders such as consumers, NGOs and journalists to hold them accountable for their actions and negative impacts. A recent example is the critique of Teun van de Keuken, a Dutch journalist and co-founder of Tony Chocolonely, a popular ethical chocolate brand. He scrutinized Esprit’s latest store campaign, arguing the brand communicated about their sustainability efforts in a too upbeat way, considering its fairly minimal sustainability achievements. This type of criticism sometimes results in greenhushing. Instead of being open about great strategic sustainability efforts and achievements, brands would rather choose not to talk about it. This strategy automatically averts any risk of being scrutinized over it by consumers and journalists. Yet, we believe that being fully transparent to the wider public, not only by sharing sustainability achievements, but also dilemmas and failures, is a strong and bold move for a brand. And as consumer behaviour changes, we believe transparency is key for building a future-proof fashion brand.

Who decides what’s relevant for consumers to know?

Window Esprit store in Amsterdam

Consumer demand will command brands to become more transparent

Just like any other business, a fashion brand’s existence is dependent on consumers’ willingness to purchase its products. As fashion suffers from a rising trust deficit, fuelled by media and documentary filmmakers revealing the abuses in the industry, there’s a challenge for many fashion brands.

This distrust has led to an increasing number of consumers demanding to know more about issues like from where garments, footwear, bags and other fashion accessories are made and how they’re manufactured. Millennials are in the vanguard, with 52 percent agreeing that they always research for background information before buying, compared with 45 percent of Gen Z consumers and 41 percent of Baby Boomers, as reported in The State of Fashion Report 2019. With the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, the ever-growing Fashion Revolution movement has given consumers a platform f to hold brands accountable for their transparency policies, or lack thereof. The movement was initiated after the collapse of clothing factory Rana Plaza in 2013, which killed more than 1100 workers. In their latest consumer report, Fashion Revolution concluded consumers expect fashion brands to be more transparent by sharing detailed information about the factories where their clothes are made and the suppliers they use to source the materials, ingredients and components used in their clothes. The study also showed that the vast majority of consumers would like to learn more about where their clothes are made and by whom, as well as what fashion brands are doing to address social and environmental issues. The rising success of fashion brands with radical approaches to transparency, like Honest by from Bruno Pieters*, proves that more consumers greatly value transparency.

These changes in consumers’ attitude and behaviour show an undeniably increasing demand for more transparency. Whereas today transparency comes with the risk of being scrutinized by the public, we believe that in a few years’ time, not being transparent will be the reason to be scrutinized. So whether you’re a small or a big fashion brand, you’ll need to find a way to deal with and manage transparency.

*Honest by terminated its business on 15 October 2018. Bruno Pieters: “While I’m getting ready to say goodbye to the fashion industry and start a new chapter in my life, I’m more certain than ever that the fashion industry is heading in the right direction.”

Fashion Revolution has given consumers a platform to hold brands accountable

There’s also niche category brands worth mentioning: Brands that have a good sustainability story, but choose not to promote this to consumers. Not because it’s risky, but they want style to be the focal point. An example is SuitSupply, a popular Dutch brand and one of the frontrunners in sustainability within the Fair Wear Foundation. At its yearly event last year, they acknowledged the rise in consumer demand for transparency. SuitSupply is exploring how to anticipate this new reality.

Government pressure forces brands to do better

Not only consumers, but also governments are increasingly putting more pressure on the fashion industry. They tackle transparency in the fashion supply chain as a catalyst for bringing about greater change in the industry’s complex systemic issues, such as raising wages of garment workers or reducing environmental impacts.

Laws that put pressure on brands are for instance the UK Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, focusing on combating slavery and human trafficking. The 2007 French law on corporate duty of vigilance focuses on human rights as a whole and not just on a specific aspect. To show they adhere to this law, companies have to report on what they do and their results, which means they have to know what’s happening in their supply chain. As noble as the aims of this law may be, these solutions mainly apply to national legislation. In today’s globalised world, nationwide governmental decisions aren’t taken in in a vacuum and are arguably too limited for tackling the unsustainable practices of companies that operate internationally. This is why the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile and the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles have been working together since August 2018. Both initiatives use transparency as a tool to identify and address sustainability issues in the supply chains of its signatories, while fostering a collaborative approach when solving these issues. Expressed critique on the Dutch agreement is the voluntary participation of brands and lack of concrete consequences when underperforming. The Bangladesh Accord** on Fire and Building Safety is, therefore, unique among other agreements. This is one of the few international legally binding agreements between brands and global unions. Moreover, we see international organisations and NGOs trying to connect the threads that follow the geographical routes of business practices. An example is the due diligence guidance for responsible supply chain, which presents ways in which brands can apply transparency to foster social and environmental justice as well as business learning. And the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion, aims to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and strengthening synergies between existing initiatives.

Still, some will argue that governmental action is not enough and that governments should do much more. Gerard Spong, a well-known and respected lawyer in the Netherlands, said:

“Every company that is established in the Netherlands and that purchases Indian clothing made by children commits a crime. There is a huge number of clothing criminals in our country, for whom not a single public prosecutor shows any interest, whatsoever, today. That is, of course, a crazy situation. The maximum sentence is the same as for drug crimes. We give all our attention to this and we leave this shocking abuse completely untouched. It can’t get any crazier.” (Gerard Spong, 31-1-2017 in De Ondernemer)

If he’s right, why aren’t we making better use of the possibilities current legislation offers? As we’re no legal experts, we don’t have the answer. But, overall, we feel that the fashion industry is on the radar of more and more governments, and steps are being taken in the right direction. This a positive development, which is a support to everyone who’s advocating the industry to change.

**Currently, it’s unclear whether the Bangladesh Accord will continue its work.

“There is a huge number of clothing criminals in our country”

– Gerard Spong, Dutch lawyer. Quoted in De Ondernemer

Bangladesh Accord, Safety Committee and Safety Training to all employees

Will innovation lead the way towards more transparency?

Clearly, pressure from consumers and governments is on the rise, but will it move brands fast enough? Some are looking at new innovations and tools to lead the way towards more transparency.

Like in many other industries, for a while blockchain was seen as the ‘holy grail’ to solve fashion’s supply chain transparency challenges. At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2017 the blockchain pilot of designer Martine Jarlgaard, A Transparent Company and Provenance was presented. They used blockchain technology to track Alpaca from farm to end garment. This could be regarded as a great first step, but looking at it with a more critical eye, one may wonder its utility. Was such a complicated technology as blockchain the right tool for making the supply chain of quite a small and locally sourced UK-based brand more transparent and traceable? It’s not that we think blockchain isn’t a promising technology, but rather that transparency isn’t intrinsically about having technologies like blockchain at hand. Technology is a means to an end. At all times, we should be critical about what technologies we use, and for what purpose. Yet, we do see promising start-ups sharing an exciting picture of what possibilities blockchain may create in fashion, like Lukso. Start-up Bext360 does aspire ‘transparency that’s good for everyone’. Amongst sourcing other materials, they use blockchain technology to make every step of the international cotton supply chain transparent.

Promising start-ups share a picture of what possibilities blockchain may create in fashion

Of course, there’s more innovation than just blockchain. The company &Wider has introduced a scalable research methodology to interview clothing factory workers, having their voices heard more than ever. Their data, which is stored in the ‘cloud’, gives reliable insights on what is really happening in the factories where our clothes are produced. Supply chain and certification expert Control Union, developed the platform Connected together with H&M, introducing full transparency and traceability of cotton from farm to end product. Another interesting player in this space is Sourcemap. They developed software to map out the entire supply chain of fashion companies and work for known brands, such as Eileen Fisher. There’s also an increased interest in using RFID technology, allowing brands and retailers to better predict and handle sales, supply and stock. Besides efficiency (and profitability) gains, it also reduces overproduction and waste. Zara is one of the frontrunners in this technology. Quite exciting is the new technology of German company Tailor lux. They develop so-called luminescent pigments that can be integrated in materials and products. They are working on a project to apply this technology on organic cotton, ultimately allowing for full traceability of our garments to farm level.

Despite these exciting technologies, most fashion companies still don’t know what’s happening in their supply chain. And what you don’t know, you cannot put into a software tool nor can you store it on the blockchain. It’s therefore no surprise that fashion needs to shift gears if it wants to achieve full, or at least greater, transparency.

Blockchain pilot of designer Martine Jarlgaard, A Transparent Company and Provenance

Coming up: frontrunners in transparency

Opinions vary on whether it’s possible to make the fashion industry fully transparent, from the raw materials up to the end consumer. Ideally, we would even want to know what’s happening in the post-consumer phase: will a garment become part of the second hand market, will it go for recycling or did it end up at landfill?

We believe full transparency in fashion is possible, but change must be inspired by best practices outside the industry. The Marks & Spencer’s case, as shared in The State of Fashion 2019 report, shows the company has managed to introduce complete traceability of all its beef products. It took years of research and development and operational restructuring, but today the retailer can trace the origins of a single beef patty in every detail – quite impressive. So if the fashion industry is actually serious about really making a change, it looks like brands would need to be willing to make a greater effort – are they?

In the next few weeks, we will publish interviews with frontrunners and experts in the area of transparency and fashion, both in international and local contexts. We hope this series helps people to form a more informed opinion about what transparency in fashion means and to critically evaluate brands’ transparency approach. Allowing everyone to judge less and contribute to the discussion about transparency and sustainability in the fashion industry in a sharper and more constructive way.

The first interview with &Wider will be published next week, followed by Fashion Revolution’s policy director Sarah Ditty, Control Union, Trace Your Leather Cooperative and several front runner brands, like Bellamy Gallery and Asket.

This article is based on desk research, Fashion for Good Naked exhibition, an interview with Jeroen van der Heide, Roosmarie Ruigrok, Fair Wear Foundation’s annual conference, and the interviews conducted for this series.

Visit  26 May our event on transparency in the fashion industry

As part of this series, we organise on 26 May in Amsterdam an event on transparency in fashion in Amsterdam. Together with live drawer Nina from Ikigai agency, we’ll create a visual Consumer Fashion Transparency Manifest. You can buy your tickets for this event (fee is eur 14,50).

More articles about transparency in fashion

&Wider makes the fashion industry face reality

Lea Estherhuizen was determined to contribute to changing the working conditions of workers in global supply chains, such as in fashion, and founded &Wider. Read more

If you’re into fashion and a better world, remember this lady’s name

The name Sarah Ditty probably doesn’t ring a bell. But let’s remember this lady’s name from now on, because she’s the Policy Director of Fashion Revolution. Read more

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