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Why Transparency in Fashion Matters

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By Elise Epp, April 24, 2019

What’s the environmental impact of your closet?

When you think about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, you probably think about smokestacks, tailpipes and forest fires before you think about t-shirts, right?

Sustainable fashion
The global fashion industry emits roughly the same amount of GHGs as the entire European Union.

But consider this: Americans bought 60 per cent more clothing in 2014 than in 2000. If consumption rates continue on this trajectory, the world will need three times as many resources in 2050 to meet demand. For a resource-intense industry, that’s a big deal.

A Fashion Revolution

On April 24, 2013, a building known as Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,500 more. Most were garment workers forced to return to the building despite large cracks in the walls.

Rana Plaza
The Rana Plaza collapse prompted local and international calls for fashion industry reforms. (Source: rijans/Flickr)

Fashion Revolution formed in the wake of this disaster. Both an organization and a global movement, it aims to change “the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed.” Every April, it holds Fashion Revolution Week and the #whomademyclothes campaign, a call for consumers to ask for more transparency from their favourite brands.

While there are many statistics that show how dangerous the garment industry is, both for people and the planet, one of the biggest challenges is that brands don’t know their own supply chains. In their Fashion Transparency Index 2018, Fashion Revolution reviewed 150 of the biggest global fashion brands and ranked them “according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impact.” The brands were rated based on publicly available information and data.

Adidas and Reebok came out on top, with a disclosure level of 58 per cent each. Below them, luxury and bargain brands were interspersed, showing that paying more for a product doesn’t necessarily mean greater transparency or sustainability: Zara is at 42 per cent; Prada and American Eagle both sit at 15 per cent; Chanel is at 3 per cent.

Why Is Transparency Important?

You cannot monitor your supply chain if you don’t even know where your manufacturing facilities are. When Rana Plaza collapsed, people picked through the rubble to find clothing labels that would tell them which brands’ clothes were made there. Brands can use this to evade responsibility—they had a contract with a reputable factory! How could they know that factory would subcontract it?

As Christina Hajagos-Clausen, garment director at IndustriALL Global Union, writes in the Fashion Transparency Index 2018, “Transparency of a company’s manufacturing supply chain better enables a company to identify and assess actual or potential adverse human rights impacts.”

Sustainable fashion
Do you know who made your clothes?

Nazma Akter, Bangladeshi trade unionist and founder of the AWAJ Foundation, adds, “If unions and workers in Bangladesh have a list of where brands are manufacturing, it is so much easier for us to resolve problems quickly. We don’t need to do big public campaigns; we can address issues directly with brands.”

The good news is that improvements are being made. Voluntary sustainability standards, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, help brands become more transparent. For example, the Better Cotton Initiative works with cotton farmers to make their crops more sustainable, and Cradle to Cradle assesses the impact a product has on the environment, both in its initial production and in its recyclability.

Though greenwashing is prevalent, retailers are facing increased pressure from their customers for more sustainable options. Fashion Revolution Week gets people to ask all at once: who made my clothes?

Further reading

Blog: Do Voluntary Standards Actually Stop Biodiversity Loss?

Blog: How Can Sustainability Standards Contribute to Empowering Women’s Food Security?

Blog: Should Farmers Who Follow Sustainable Practices Be Rewarded?