When H&M topped Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index last month, sustainability advocates pounced. All the ranking showed, they claimed, was that H&M is transparently unsustainable.
The index ranks how much brands disclose about their supply chains — not whether those disclosures represent a path to sustainability, says Sarah Ditty, the organisation’s global policy director. “Most of these big brands are on a transparency journey, but ultimately their business model is unsustainable.”
Transparency is considered a necessary first step to hold brands accountable for more sustainable and ethical practices. But often lost in the push for transparency is the end goal of better wages, safer working conditions and cleaner manufacturing. Years into fashion’s transparency movement, critics say it hasn’t led to meaningful change. Brands have been rewarded for taking positive initial steps, but without incentives to improve on the deeper social and environmental issues that public disclosure is supposed to bring to light, most “transparency” starts and ends with what a brand decides itself it wants to disclose.
“It’s a good start, but we’ve been in this good start for over a decade now,” says Kohl Gill, product advisor specialising in labour monitoring and supply chain predictive analytics.
To lead to more action, experts say, transparency policies would need to look past naming factories and divulge the working conditions within those factories; they would need to be more inclusive and stretch deeper into the supply chain; and for full effect, they would need to be standardised across the industry and accompanied by other systemic changes, including laws that would make actions mandatory rather than voluntary.
“[Transparency] is part of the solution,” says Jill Tucker, head of Laudes Foundation’s Labour Rights Programme. “But we need fundamental system change.”
Transparency, on brands’ terms
In the name of transparency, many brands have begun naming their Tier 1 suppliers — the factories they source from directly. It’s one of the key measures, of many, tracked by the Transparency Index, which this year found that 40 per cent of brands publish their first-tier manufacturers. Naming Tier 1 factories can inform advocacy campaigns and help unions fight on behalf of workers, because public factory lists are often the only way that workers know which brands they’re producing for.
But Ayesha Barenblat, founder of the nonprofit Remake, says factory names say nothing about the labour and environmental challenges that organisations like hers are trying to get the industry to address. Labour violations are more common in Tier 1, but tend to be more severe in Tier 2, according to Gill, who points to issues like forced labour in the cotton industry and modern slavery in spinning mills. Most transparency efforts stop short of evaluating those earlier stages of the supply chain — work that brands say, accurately, is much harder and complicated to do.
Information that brands do share from inside factories may not paint an accurate picture of the struggles that workers face; compliance data speaks to whether and how brand-set standards are being met at the time an inspector visited. Worker grievances typically aren’t factored in, and current transparency efforts don’t evaluate the power dynamics that Barenblat says drive costs down and lead to many of the industry’s problematic conditions in the first place.
According to Remake, sharing factories’ names says little about the labour and environmental challenges within them.
Factory information is important because, among other reasons, it enables NGOs and unions to pinpoint where workers may be facing problems, says Ditty. Fashion Revolution also asks brands to disclose audit results across the supply chain; worker grievances; the prevalence of gender-based discrimination and modern slavery in supplier facilities; and their strategy and outcomes on living wages.
Reformation founder and CEO Yael Aflalo says sustainability and transparency go hand in hand. “We believe that you can’t make meaningful progress unless you’re honest with consumers and hold yourself accountable,” she says. She adds the company participates in the Better Buying Initiative, which encourages retailers and brands to adhere to their contractual agreements. “This allows us to have transparent two-way communication with our suppliers and it has pushed us to improve our purchasing practices.”
Ultimately, Gill says the key flaw in existing approaches to transparency is that they depend on voluntary efforts, and it’s not in brands’ interest to be fully transparent. Among other risks, it can open up questions of liability when problems do arise. “There is zero incentive for brands to voluntarily create a data set on which they themselves can be prosecuted,” he says.
The power of policy
Two legislation pushes in the European Union could have an impact. One would govern the human rights obligations of businesses; the other would have companies report more “non-financial” information on things like social and environmental performance. Aruna Kashyap, Human Rights Watch senior counsel on women’s rights, says if written properly, the initiatives “can significantly reform the corporate accountability landscape”.
Several brands that Vogue Business reached out to spoke about the value of transparency, including H&M, but none provided specific examples of how it has improved their sustainability efforts.
For Kering, traceability and transparency have been crucial for setting goals and measuring progress toward them; it’s also a lot of work to dig into the supply chain, says sustainability operations director Michael Beutler. “To have decision-quality data and the right kind of data that form the key levers of change is really important,” he says. “We’ve been through that journey on the environmental side. We’re definitely trying to understand that on the social side, which in some ways is a lot more complicated.”
He’s hopeful the EU legislative efforts could bring more uniformity to efforts across the industry, but he also thinks that external players like investors and NGOs have already been nudging the industry in a more sustainable and ethical direction — using the term “soft law” for the unofficial requirements their influence can impose.
Garment workers pictured at various stages of production in Bangladesh factories.
© Mahmud Rahman/Laudes Foundation
Fashion Revolution updates the index every year, and Ditty says next year’s may look more heavily at purchasing practices — an aspect of the industry that has faced scrutiny during the pandemic, as brands have been able to cancel orders and leave suppliers millions of dollars in debt. She also emphasises that transparency is only one focus for the organisation, alongside work on things like policy and consumer education. The index is largely credited with mainstreaming the conversation around transparency. But it also needs to evolve, as the industry baseline has changed and the stakes are more urgent, says Tucker, of Laudes Foundation.
“Fashion Revolution did a good service to the industry,” she says. “The Transparency Index needs to pivot with the times and make sure that those brands that perform the best in the index are actually getting better and better on things that matter more to workers.”
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