Who makes the clothes we wear? Itâs a simple question, but one that many in the fashion industry are struggling to answer. Transparency â the idea that brands should openly disclose their business practices and have full traceability of supply chain â has quickly moved its way into the modern fashion lexicon.
The term is becoming more than a buzzword. Itâs growing ubiquity signals a major shift in the industry and the demand for greater transparency is something many brands are grappling with.
The State of Fashion 2020, an independent report by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company that took an in-depth look at the fashion industry, recently called out this need for radical change. âFashion players are under pressure to âŠ address growing demand for the industry to face the sustainability agenda head-on,â it stated. âConsumers and employees will continue to demand more from purpose-driven companies that champion their values â from climate change consciousness to diversity and inclusion.â Sustainability is one of the key drivers behind the push for transparency. As the worldâs second-largest polluter, the fashion industry is responsible for 1,715 million tonnes of COâ emissions a year, forecast to grow 63 percent by 2030.
The State of Fashion 2020 notes that âfashion accounts for 20 to 35 percent of microplastic flows into the ocean and outweighs the carbon footprint of international flights and shopping combined.â
Climate activists have put the industry in the spotlight, bringing the environmental impact to the top of consumersâ minds. In a recent McKinsey survey, 66 percent of respondents said they are willing to pay more for sustainable goods. Another survey, commissioned by not-for-profit organisation Fashion Revolution, found that 37 percent of fashion consumers thought it was important that the clothing they buy is produced in a way that is not harmful to the environment.
Ethical working conditions are another key driver behind the call for transparency. In 2013, the devastating Rana Plaza disaster â a building collapse in Bangladesh which resulted in the deaths of 1,134 people, many of them garment workers â brought the need for transparency to the forefront of the fashion conversation.
The tragedy has been held up as an example of the consequences of unethical practices and lack of transparency in the supply chain. Due to a gap in traceability, many brands didnât know their garments were made at Rana Plaza and only discovered it weeks later.
âThe fashion industry still operates in an opaque manner, which is a huge barrier to change,â says Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution. âExploitation thrives in hidden places.â
âFactory fires and accidents, poor working conditions, dangerous pollution and exploitation of garment workers remains rampant six years after Rana Plaza,â states Fashion Revolution in their The Fashion Transparency Index 2019 report.
Campaigners like Somers are calling out the fashion industry for a lack of responsibility when it comes to understanding their supply chain. Without stringent oversight, brands can find their work subcontracted to many other suppliers, often without their knowledge. âThis … makes it extremely difficult to monitor human rights and environmental impacts,â says Fashion Revolution.
While consumer interest in ethical and sustainable fashion continues to grow (internet searches for âsustainable fashionâ tripled between 2016 and 2019) the landscape remains murky, plagued by a lack of information and an emerging trend of âgreenwashingâ. âConsumers are unsure what âsustainabilityâ means or how to identify sustainable brands,â explains The State of Fashion 2020, noting a survey of 100 European firms that showed consumers are often swayed by misinformation or lack of information.
Good On You is one of the latest fashion platforms looking to bring clarity to consumers. By âreading between the seamsâ Good On You lets consumers track the ethical rating of a brand through an app. The ratings pinpoint four key areas of transparency: people, planet, animals and information sources.
âThere are a lot of conflicting messages out there and some real greenwashing when it comes to ethical and sustainable fashion,â says Gordon Renouf, co-founder of Good On You.
â[Our platform] means that people can get an easy-to-understand rating for a brand and they can make choices based on information they trust.â
Provenance is another tech startup enabling brands to embrace this new model of transparency. Founded by engineer Jessi Baker, the tech company uses blockchain software to help brands gather and present information and stories about products and their supply chains.
Merino knitwear company Sheep Inc. is one brand taking advantage of this type of cutting-edge technology. Rethinking the consumer model, Sheep Inc. lets customers track the sheep from the farm where the clothingâs wool is sourced, through a Radio Frequency Identification Tag (RFID) tag. Their position, says founder Edzard van der Wyck, is that you need to give people a reason to care and be involved in the story behind the supply chain. Van der Wyck says he embraces the accountability that comes with transparency. âYou have to make sure you are really scrutinising every aspect of your business.â
Local designer Kowtow is another brand making conscious decisions around sustainable materials and ethical manufacturing.
Transparency, explains founder Gosia Piatek, was the pillar of the brand when she started it 15 years ago. âI wanted to know who was working in my production chain from seed to garment and I wasnât going to budge on that,â she says. This commitment, she explains, isnât easy. Unlike a product like coffee, there are many steps throughout the clothing supply chain â from growing and processing, to cutting and stitching. âClothing is really complicated and maybe thatâs why people have put it in the âtoo hardâ basket … I wanted to do something that was going to shake things up.â
Like Sheep Inc., Kowtow believes in holding themselves accountable. âFor us, itâs about being really honest with our customers and being accountable,â says Piatek.
As smaller brands shift towards transparent business models, they are beginning to demand greater responsibility from the industryâs leaders.
New Zealand-American footwear brand Allbirds recently caused a stir in the industry when they published an open-letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking him to âsteal our approach to sustainabilityâ. After Amazon released a pair of $45 Wool Blend shoes that looked strikingly similar to the Allbirds Wool Runners, co-founders Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown wrote to Bezos, saying, âWe are flattered at the similarities that your private label shoe shares with ours, but hoped the commonalities would include these environmentally-friendly materials as well.â
As the industry begins to embrace this new wave of radical transparency, it is younger consumers who are leading the charge. According to the McKinsey survey, 42 percent of millennials now want to know what goes into products and how they are made before they buy.
Kate Hall, a Kiwi ethical fashion blogger, says sheâs seen this change first-hand. âIâd like to think consumer habits are changing for the better, however we probably have a really long way to go,â she says. âThe true cost of fashion is starting to ruminate amongst society, and more mainstream brands are beginning to talk about this.
âTransparency gives consumers the power to say âyesâ or ânoâ to brands depending on whether they fit their values, therefore swaying the fashion industry to represent what consumers actually want,â says Hall. The responsibility, she believes, goes both ways â consumers must hold themselves accountable and not fall into the traps of fast fashion. âFor consumers to embrace conscious fashion choices, there needs to be a mindset change; not just a whole lot of conscious fashion brands popping up.â
Campaigner Carry Somers agrees. âMore than ever, brands and retailers are being held to account and beginning to realise that their fashion statements need to be embodied in truth,â she says. âThere truly is an ocean of truth lying undiscovered before us when it comes to fashion, but there is a sea of change taking place and we are seeing a lot of consumers wading in and asking, demanding to know the truth behind their clothes.â