Transparency is a key component of business in the modern world. When the Rana Plaza building collapsed ten years ago, killing and injuring thousands of garment workers, it was a vivid reminder that transparency needs to be taken seriously. The tragedy gave insight into how an opaque supply chain allows human rights abuses and environmental degradation to persist. As rescuers were forced to dig through rubble looking for clothing labels in order to identify the companies responsible for producing clothes there, it became clear that companies cannot ensure their products are made responsibly if they do not know where and under what conditions those products are being created.
A decade later, the fashion industry’s lack of transparency continues to be a significant problem. Improved regulations and standards have been implemented, but there will only be meaningful change and sustainable action when all companies can commit to taking full responsibility for their supply chains. Consumer pressure is one powerful way this momentum can be sustained; ethical shoppers have the power to prompt businesses to increase transparency by demanding publicly accessible information about which materials were used and where garments were produced.
WHAT IS FASHION TRANSPARENCY?
When fashion brands disclose information about their supply chain, customers gain insight into the origin of their products and the circumstances that were involved in making them. That includes not only raw materials used and resources required, but also carbon emissions output during manufacturing processes, worker wages, and more.
Transparency within the fashion industry is key to understanding how our choices as consumers impact people and the environment. Having this knowledge available to consumers helps us make better decisions when it comes to purchasing fashion pieces. Understanding which brands are more ethical or environmentally aware encourages shoppers to support companies that prioritize meaningful change over bottom lines. Although knowing a brand’s impact doesn’t guarantee they’re doing enough to help, transparency at least offers a level of accountability that can ultimately help push sustainable practices even further towards the forefront of retail.
WHY IS TRANSPARENCY IN FASHION IMPORTANT?
By committing to transparency, fashion companies can become better informed about the production methods of their contractors, be more accountable to labor standards, and minimize environmental impact. Knowing exactly where materials are sourced, how products were manufactured, and how much suppliers and workers are being compensated are all huge components of greater transparency as they establish a level of oversight that consumers or authorities may not otherwise have.
Transparency should also cover areas such as labor conditions, sustainability standards, product safety testing protocols and payment terms for suppliers. This information is essential, as consumers now have a greater understanding of how fashion affects people’s lives around the world. Not only do they want to feel good about what they are wearing, but they may also be interested in knowing who has made an item and under what conditions it was produced.
This can also benefit the businesses and companies themselves by improving their reputation, appealing to an ever-growing conscious consumer base, mitigating risks such as helping combat illegal activities within the supply chain including forced labor or environmental pollution, and preparing companies for changing interests, trends, and regulations. By making sure companies take transparent responsibility for their actions, we can ensure individuals are able to make more ethical purchasing decisions that truly benefit all stakeholders involved.
TRANSPARENCY IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS TRUE SUSTAINABILITY FOR FASHION BRANDS
Transparency will help achieve strong environmental standards, ethical labor practices, and improved corporate governance within the fashion industry overall.
The fashion industry has an immense environmental impact due to its reliance on global supply chains. One of the biggest environmental impacts is carbon emissions, which are largely unregulated by brands. While many brands do report their own facility's carbon footprint, only a fraction actually reveal information about their emissions at a manufacturing or raw material level. This lack of visibility prevents companies from meaningfully addressing their environmental impact further up and further down the supply chain.
Water use and pollution is another major issue which affects the fashion industry due to the reliance on water in the manufacturing processing. It contributes to water scarcity in some regions as well as runoff of dyes and chemicals that can have devastating effects on local ecosystems. Fashion companies are beginning to take steps towards mitigating this issue with measures such as using recycled and treated water, adopting sustainable dyeing processes, or even switching over to virtual design technologies. However, there still remains much progress to be made before these measures become fully integrated into operations across the industry.
The fashion industry has a significant social impact, from wages, labor rights, and working conditions. As fashion trends come and go quickly, so does demand for clothes which takes a toll on garment workers’ health and wages, further affecting the environment. Workers’ wages remain far below living wage benchmarks in many corporations around the world, and many countries still have limited and/or unenforced regulations regarding excessive hours and child labor. Most garment workers face difficulties in being able to afford basic goods, maintain a property, develop savings, or obtain financial security. The current system of underpaying workers combined with over-production creates skewed consumption patterns, which create hidden costs for society at large. This is why all levels of the industry must work together, from brands and factories to government entities, to make sure that fairer working conditions accompany production decisions so as not to disadvantage vulnerable populations for foreign corporations’ profit gains.
Transparency is, at its core, a governance issue. Often, big fashion brands don't even know the specifics of where or how their products are made. Internal corporate policies can provide crucial guidelines for making the entire supply chain more transparent. Factors such as proper monitoring and enforcement should also be taken into account in order to properly assess impact and ensure that responsible behavior is being maintained throughout the supply chain. It is essential for organizations to uphold honest communication in order to guarantee accurate transparency as well as encourage collaboration between cause-driven businesses and suppliers within sustainable circles.
HOW CAN I DETERMINE WHAT COMPANIES ARE TRANSPARENT, SUSTAINABLE, AND NOT JUST GREENWASHING?
The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster illuminated just how dangerous a lack of visibility into the fashion industry can be. This tragedy sparked a revolution in order to demand more transparency from the companies responsible: a Fashion Revolution.
Fashion Revolution, a UK charity founded in response to the Rana Plaza disaster, believes that consumers deserve to know what effect their purchases have on a deeper level than simply looking good. This has driven them to push for radical transparency in the industry, allowing consumers access to information about where materials come from and how garments are produced. When brands make their efforts known publicly, this publicity invites scrutiny into their claims while enabling advocacy for continued advancement.
The Fashion Transparency Index is an annual tool created by the Fashion Revolution to examine and rank the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers in terms of what social and environmental information they offer about their practices, policies and impacts. Every year, their annual Fashion Transparency Index ranks the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers on their disclosure policies and practices, to ensure that companies are held accountable for their environmental and social impact. A total of 250 global fashion giants are evaluated on how transparent they are, with the aim being to incentivize more transparency within the industry.
However, one index should not dictate all your shopping choices. Your choices as a consumer can still create a big impact. A good rule of thumb is to buy only what you need from small fashion brands that care about their products and their impact, and avoid cheap fast fashion. You can refer to our recent article on 5 Things to Look for When Shopping for Sustainable Brands.
WHAT IS THE STATE OF FASHION TRANSPARENCY IN 2023?
The fashion industry is currently under a magnifying glass for its lack of transparency. Despite being the fourth most polluting industry in the world with a proven history of unsafe and abusive working conditions, many companies have remained reticent about disclosing their practices and policies. In 2022, the Fashion Transparency Index found that the average transparency score of 250 of the largest global fashion brands was only 24%, an extremely low figure in comparison to the number of large multinational companies in other industries that have embraced sustainability and transparency.
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The lack of transparency in the fast fashion industry has allowed companies to exploit people and nature without facing enough accountability or responsibility. Unfortunately, the exploitative practices often propagated by these companies are what further promote the lack of transparency. By introducing transparency into this cycle, however, brands can better understand their current systems, putting them on the path towards creating a more conscious industry overall.
Companies need to be more responsive and flexible than ever before by increasing visibility into their supply chains and environmental footprint. With this increased transparency, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to ethical sourcing, sustainable practices, and safety measures across their entire operations. Transparency allows for companies to be held accountable for their actions and for consumers to have peace of mind that their purchases aren't contributing to environmental destruction or abusive working conditions. As Orsola de Castro, founder of the Fashion Revolution movement explains: “What’s needed is a new way of doing business – one where supply chains are both open and accountable.”
With greater transparency between all parties involved in the fashion industry’s supply chain, we can create a fairer environment for everyone involved.