In November I attended the Westminster Business Forum on Sustainability, Ethics and the UK Fashion Industry. It was a really thought provoking morning. After the event I tweeted that my takeaway in three words are: 

  • Transparency
  • Scalability
  • Collaboration 

I’ll be fleshing out what these three words mean for a sustainable business in my next three blog posts starting with transparency.

Transparency in the clothing industry

This follows on very nicely from last month’s blog post when I wrote about modern slavery and the clothing industry. The reality is that you don’t know whether the clothes you are wearing have been touched by slavery somewhere along the supply chain. The sad likelihood is that they probably have.

Finding out who made your clothes is very hard. The supply chain for the textile industry is long and complex. The process starts with raw material (natural or man-made), yarn, spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing. That’s before the garment is cut out, sewn together, finished and transported to the supplier/wholesaler, the retailer and eventually to your wardrobe.  Each of these processes could be done by a different factory, person or contractor. Even a smallish company could have hundreds of suppliers who in turn source from other suppliers down the supply chain. 

However, the news is not all bad. I mentioned the Open Apparel Registry in a previous blog post. The Open Apparel Registry is an open source tool which maps garment facilities worldwide and assigns a unique ID number to each. It is a go-to source for identifying apparel facilities and their affiliations. It collates disparate supplier lists from industry stakeholders into one central, open source map and database. It currently lists nearly 25,000 factories and tells you which retailer brands they supply. The listings are provided by the industry so there is still some way to go yet.

Fashion Revolution have published their Fashion Transparency Index 2019 with fascinating information on 200 of the world’s biggest brands and retailers. Did you know that sportswear and outdoor brands lead the way on transparency? And that very few brands are disclosing anything about their purchasing practices? It makes for a good, if sobering, read.

Rana Plaza

The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories in 2013. It took 90 seconds to collapse killing 1,134 people and injuring countless more. People had to dig through the rubble looking for labels to find out which brands were being produced in the factories.

“To me, transparency means that brands are willing to be held accountable for the business practices.” Nazma Akter, Bangladeshi Trade Unionist and Founder of the Awaj Foundation.

Exactly. 

The Rana Plaza tragedy was a wake up call for consumers who began to question the true costs of cheap fast fashion. Brands could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening in their supply chains and workers began to demand safer work practices. 200 global companies signed up to a legally binding agreement, the  Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Nearer to home, Annie Kelly reported in the Guardian this week that garment workers in Leicester and the north east of England are being paid £3 an hour and working in “shameful” conditions. Fast fashion from these factories in the UK and Bangladesh are undoubtedly on sale in Ireland.

Transparency in the wider business world

What the clothing industry demonstrates very clearly is the global nature of supply chains. This applies to most of the goods we purchase daily in our personal and professional lives. Information that should be readily accessible about the goods and services we purchase are:

  • Where do they come from?
  • Who makes them?
  • How much are they paid?
  • Are there fair employment practices?
  • Who profits from the sale?

These questions apply equally  to services as well as goods. What does your £10 manicure really cost? is investigated by the Guardian in this revealing article. This is trafficking and human slavery in plain sight. Think of workers also in the cleaning, childcare, catering, agriculture and fishing industries and human trafficking and modern slavery is suddenly very near to home.

Why is this important to sustainability?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals include “decent work and economic growth” (goal 8) and “responsible consumption and production” (goal 12). These are all to be achieved in the next ten years, so we’d better get a move on.

“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development … provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” United Nations.

Transparency is at the heart of our ability to achieve these goals. Think of transparency as knowledge. Knowledge gives us the information to make better choices about how we live our lives, both professionally and personally. Until we can answer the questions above we cannot know whether our choices are ethical or not. Transparency does not evaluate the ethical or sustainable credentials of goods or services. But it does show just how much information companies reveal about where their stuff comes from. It then allows us to make a better informed choice.

Even where the information is available it can be hard to access. To give a small personal example, I wanted to buy some olive spread for my toast. I found some labelled Olive Spread in my local supermarket. Great! Or so I thought. Except when I looked at the really tiny (but legal) print on the back, it turns out to contain only 21% olive oil and also rapeseed and palm oil. Palm oil is produced in industrial quantities around the world and swamp forests are being cleared to produce it. This contributes to climate change and to threatening species like orangutans with extinction.  So I prefer not to buy commodity products with palm oil in them. Unfortunately, by the time I realised this I had already bought the product, but needless to say I won’t be buying it again!

What does this mean for your business?

If you are a retailer or indeed any business that has a supply chain for its goods then Sourcemap is a company that gives you the technology to achieve 100% traceable, transparent supply chains. Their 6 step process has been used by companies such as Timberland, the Eileen Fisher fashion brand and Jansport. This company is also behind the Open Apparel Registry. Consumers are becoming more aware of the true cost of goods in terms of human rights and environmental impact. As sustainability has become a more mainstream concept they will begin to demand greater transparency. As businesses we need to be ready to answer those demands.

Whatever your business you can start to ask the questions about the goods and services you use. One way to do this is to conduct a Green Audit on your business. This will not only show where you are sourcing your goods and services but how you can mitigate some of your carbon footprint and connect with your customers with a sustainable business ethic.

We all have a responsibility to seek transparency as businesses, retailers and consumers. With this knowledge we can all make better choices that will change our world and give us all a more sustainable future.  The old phrase “Caveat Emptor,” (buyer beware) remains just as relevant but perhaps with a broader meaning. It is never just the buyers taking the risks, it is every person who has contributed to that product through its supply chain, and our planet on which the item or service is offered. With greater transparency the buyer can make an informed choice about how to spend their money. And as the newer saying goes “There is no planet B,” so it is only through transparency and informed choices that we can make a real difference to this planet. 

© Retail Renewal 24/01/20

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