Fashion Industry: Is Transparency Enough?
“Instruction is good, but example is worth more.”
It’s Fashion Revolution Week, and major cities around the world are buzzing with events, talks, open studios and educational initiatives surrounding sustainable fashion. Clare Lissaman, Director of Impact at Common Objective, is speaking at Somerset House as part of Piñatex’s X Fashion Open Studio. The themes of transparency and supply chain disruption are taking central stage this year.
As it is part of such a consumerist and material-dependent industry, fashion design has been finding itself subject to increasing scrutiny in the context of climate change accelerators.
The panel at Piñatex’s speech on “Industry Best Practice” included a host of sustainability experts and innovators, sharing their knowledge on how industry leaders are implementing best practices within the fashion sector. As it is part of such a consumerist and material-dependent industry, fashion design has been finding itself subject to increasing scrutiny in the context of climate change accelerators.
The conversation around best industry practices also coincides with the larger debate around supply chain transparency in the fashion industry, with H&M making strides to maximise their efforts in this area. The retailer recently announced their latest transparency initiative, which commits to listing all production details of each garment on their website. Customers will have access to supplier, country, factory, and other data, whether shopping online or in store.
The past decade has seen the rise, flow, and development of the concept of “sustainable fashion” in the eyes of consumers and industry insiders. Before the coining of the term “fast fashion,” there was the revelation of the atrocious working conditions and production process which was going on behind the scenes of all the major high-street brands. In the past, contention around fur coats made by Burberry was relegated to the concern and outrage of hippie activists who were largely left to their own devices, in their own corner.
Suddenly, everyone began to realise that the story behind their clothing is not a minority concern.
However, the gruesome reality behind how pretty garments materialise in sparkly stores shocked the world, with documentaries and news coverage such as The True Cost and Clothes to Die For raising the alarm. We certainly have the emergence of media distribution platforms such as Facebook and Youtube to thank for the rapid spread of this shock-revelation among consumers. Suddenly, everyone began to realise that the story behind their clothing is not a minority concern. It is a global issue encompassing sustainability, ethics, economics, and social justice. It concerns us all.
In 2016, Oxfam published a “Naughty or Nice” list, making it clear which brands were failing on supply chain ethics, from production material to working conditions and wages. Companies were relegated to the “fail” list because of their lack of transparency and willingness to publish supply chain and production details, and included well-known retailers Zara and Topshop. In their more recent Company Tracker, Oxfam gives H&M the green light for both transparency and commitment to positive change.
“Working towards a sustainable fashion future is a big challenge and a long-term commitment for us.”
As well as their transparency initiative, H&M have also taken further positive steps such as the recent release of their “Conscious Collection.” The emphasis is on “sustainable style,” and their manifesto elaborates on their policy and assures customers that “working towards a sustainable fashion future is a big challenge and a long-term commitment for us.” And the data is there to show that these initiatives are translating. The Fashion Transparency Index, released this April 2019, lists H&M in the top 5 brands leading the way in transparency best practices, placing them on a similar level to Patagonia and Esprit.
Outside the realm of indexes, reports, figures, and initiatives, big brands and retailers have a perhaps more complicated mountain to navigate: consumer perception. The reaction of a company’s target market to their campaigns, conscious or otherwise, is an important metric for businesses at the end of the day. While H&M may appear, at face value, to be leading the way, consumer awareness doesn’t end there.
Social media influencers are flooding Instagram and Youtube feeds, lambasting H&M’s efforts as a mere PR front, and these voices are reaching thousands of shoppers worldwide and directly influencing their purchasing decisions. The boycott trend is strong and growing, especially in the wake of some of the data and information which these transparency reports actually reveal.
Enter a Green Generation, where over 73% of millennials (a major target demographic for H&M) are willing to pay more for products which are sustainable. And for many of this 73%, H&M’s transparency figures don’t quite cut it.
What’s important is the tangible results which occur, and which can benefit not only the workers who produce our clothes, but the planet’s resources.
Or at least, not yet. Surely, possibly, this is a step in the right direction. As consumers, we can only hope, as insisted upon by other major retailers such as Primark, that “sustainability is not a marketing campaign.” No one can deny that changes in consumer awareness triggers change in a company’s marketing strategy, so naturally, a move towards improvement in an industry’s ethical and supply chain practices is an inevitable, default scenario. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether big industry leaders care deeply about sustainability and transparency themselves – what’s important is the tangible results which occur, and which can benefit not only the workers who produce our clothes, but the planet’s resources.
As of yet, H&M have yet to experience any measurable negative feedback from their transparency submission and Conscious Collection, as their consumer perception remains stable. Of course, as well as the Social Media Justice Warriors, there’s also the other side of the coin we must not forget – a landscape dominated by figures promoting fast fashion and unsustainable products.
…leading by example may indeed be worth more.
Even the biggest names in the business, such as Vogue, can admit: “While more brands are moving towards full transparency than ever before, far too many are still frustratingly opaque.” And full transparency does not necessarily equate to fully ethical, sustainable, and equitable supply chains. For now, at this stage of the development of conscious consumerism and industry best practices, we need to hope that while constructive instruction from consumers and the public is good, leading by example may indeed be worth something too.