November 29, 2016
SHOULD WE DEMAND TRANSPARENT FASHION?

If we talk about ‘transparent clothes’, a few things might come to mind. Rihanna’s show-stopping number at the 2014 CFDA Awards. Some regrettable sartorial choices you made in your first week of college. Every outfit ever worn by Cher.

But the fad for transparency in fashion is a very different kind of trend. This is a movement that’s all about keeping brands accountable — and it’s at the centre of a hot, industry-wide debate. If you want to know what you can buy ethically, it makes sense that you do your research on responsible brands, and then look out for those brands in the shops. To do that well, we need to have information: businesses need to be transparent.

Transparency is the big buzzword right now in fashion. Industry watchdogs and activist groups are calling it the first and most important step towards turning the industry around, and making it more accountable and honest. The industry itself says it’s done some serious soul-searching, and is now undergoing a major transformation. It’s no surprise why: brands know that customers are getting smarter. Everywhere you look there’s more and more interest in buying responsibly-made clothes. If we’re prepared to spend our hard-earned cash on beautiful fashion, we want to know that the way it’s made isn’t ugly.

Shoppers these days are looking deeper than just the clothing rack.

A lack of answers – or an unwillingness to give them – is a definite red flag.

What this means is that companies should be able to tell us some basic info about how their clothes are made from the ground up – literally. Are pesticides or chemicals used in growing or synthesising the raw materials? How are local communities and employees protected from hazards? Where are the clothes stitched, and in what conditions? Are staff paid a decent wage? If a company can’t answer these questions, there’s a pretty good chance that they’re conveniently ignoring certain aspects of their supply chain. A lack of answers – or an unwillingness to give them – is a definite red flag.

There are a bunch of great organisations trying to keep track of this sort thing. Oxfam, Baptist World Aid, Rankabrand, Ecouterre – they all collect the relevant info and make it easier for us to navigate decisions on the high street. But people are starting to demand that brands themselves provide this information, and remove the need for all the digging. One way to force them into this is to rank brands publicly, according to how transparent they are. In April this year, on the anniversary of the infamous Rana Plaza factory collapse, London-based advocacy group Fashion Revolution and Ethical Consumer magazine got together to name and shame the worst offenders, and rank them against companies doing the right thing. They called it the Fashion Transparency Index.

Having researched the supply chains of several major luxury and high-street brands, the Index gave each one a ranking out of 100, based on:

  • Their standards and commitments;
  • Who they work with to decide on those standards;
  • Whether they track and trace their supply;
  • How the company checks compliance;
  • And how they can be sure the compliance checks are carried out.

 Oh, and, of course, their transparency: whether all of this information is publicly available.

The Index made big news because it drew attention to how poor transparency is in the industry: after surveying 40 brands, the average score was only 42%. The highest score they gave was 77%, awarded to Levis, H&M and Inditex (who own Zara and Massimo Dutti). Down at the bottom of the pile were URBN (who own Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People) and Claire’s Accessories, as well as quite a few luxury brands. The higher price tags in this group made it an even bigger target for criticism: Chanel, Hermès, Prada and Louis Vuitton all failed to show transparent supply chains or an effort to communicate their practices to customers. Most of those companies only had a code of conduct available on their website – and didn’t say much else about what they’re up to.

A handful of high-street brands were at the bottom of the Fashion Transparency Index.

    But this research wasn’t exactly water-tight, and several brands (and activist groups) have pointed out that the scores just don’t accurately reflect whether or not responsible practices are actually being followed. The Index was generated by sending out questionnaires to the 40 major brands. Most of them (80%, in fact) didn’t even reply – and were given ratings based on publicly available information on websites and in reports. Those that did reply were expected to include all relevant information in their responses, meaning anything that was skipped or unclear could drag down their score.

    It’s entirely possible that some brands might come out looking terrible, but actually be doing a lot of good work to improve their supply chains – they’re just not talking about it. In a conversation dominated by transparency issues, it’s important for brands to recognize that sharing is caring. But if we want fashion to make big changes, we need to move beyond a focus on the factory window, and peer through it to keep an eye on what’s happening inside.