Fashion Brands Aren't Being Open & Honest With You

Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Fashion is beaten only by the oil industry for the tarnished crown of being the dirtiest industry in the world. In recent years, fashion’s impact – on both people and planet – has been documented in innumerable news reports and exposés of garment factory fires, workplace sexual violence, and widespread pollution. Just last week, British parliament launched an inquiry to measure the true carbon footprint of fast fashion. But things are changing: Brands have started to pay attention and make efforts to change their exploitative and polluting ways. Or...so it seems.
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The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 — which killed 1,134 garment workers — along with other high-profile tragedies, finally gave influential, trailblazing NGOs the clout they needed to pressure brands into investigating and reporting on their supply chains. More scrutiny would create more transparency, and brands could be held accountable. It sounds great, but the resulting ‘transparency’ drive isn’t quite what it seems. And since there are no minimum requirements for reporting — just how open and honest are brands actually being?
It is a question often asked by the activists behind Fashion Revolution, the nonprofit responsible for much of the positive change since Rana Plaza. To encourage transparency, they collate an annual Transparency Index, which calculates how much information brands make available and aggregates it into a ranked system. Sarah Ditty, Fashion Revolution’s head of policy, explains that research such as this urges brands to disclose more. "When we compare the 98 brands and retailers in both the 2017 and 2018 Index, we have seen an average increase of 5% in their level of transparency," she tells Refinery29. "Sixty-four percent of brands have disclosed more policies and commitments than they did last year, and all but 10 brands are disclosing at least one relevant social or environmental policy."
"But, of course, none of them are perfect," Ditty continues. "At 58%, which is what adidas and Reebok – the highest-scoring brands – achieved, there’s still a long way to go toward full transparency by all the major brands and retailers. But it is important that they are taking steps forward on this journey." How genuinely labels are making efforts to take these steps is open to debate. Since Rana Plaza, the fashion industry has been under a microscope; people are considering where their clothing was made more than ever before and the answer can dictate where they shop. In the world of social media and 24-hour news, companies are striving to maintain their reputations, which means that filing a transparency report isn’t necessarily an act of goodwill, but a bid for good PR.
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"You have your reputation-sensitive brands opting in and disclosing their first and second-tier suppliers, but nobody is forcing them," says Stephanie Klotz, communications manager at the C&A Foundation, which supports Fashion Revolution. "If you go beyond brands and retailers to look at manufacturers, there’s very little information. There’s also no government I know of actually asking that information," she says, hinting at the deceptive power of omission. "Brands choosing to be that transparent are [self-enforcing] those standards. So that’s where we’re trying to catalyze some change."
In 2015, the Modern Slavery Act was feted as a landmark piece of legislation for the fashion industry. It undeniably marked a step forward in the fight against labor exploitation, but many of its guidelines are voluntary, and many brands (including some really big ones) fall short of full disclosure. The implications of this disparity – between the amount of noise brands make about ethics and sustainability, and the actual value of their reporting – cannot be underestimated.
Some auditing initiatives, such as the legally binding Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord, which shuttered hundreds of unsafe factories, have made a real difference. But when I asked Klotz if audits are often conducted by parties with a vested interest in the results, she replies simply: "Yes." In particular, she says, difficulties arise when workers are asked to talk about their workplace culture. Garment workers are predominantly women, on the lowest rungs of the employment ladder and invariably working for men in positions of power. "That’s an issue which is so often overlooked," Klotz says. "One of the things that we do is put a gender lens on absolutely everything, because gender justice is intimately tied in with garment workers’ rights, in a way that I don’t think people are conscious of," she adds, "I’m sure that auditors will interview workers, but maybe with their supervisors behind them." These suspicions appear to be confirmed by a recent, damning report that detailed a devastating pattern of sexual assault and harassment.
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The #MeToo movement has shown that unchecked power in male-dominated hierarchies can fuel gendered abuse in any industry. But while revelations about the abuse of women in the West have delivered a moment of reckoning for some abusers, the outcry over the conditions faced by poor women working in the garment industry has been markedly more muted. In Myanmar, for example, which has been hailed as a fashion success story, nestled among the reports of financial growth are harrowing reports of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people. Hundred of thousands of women have been displaced, some internally, while others are trafficked to Bangladesh as sex slaves or agricultural laborers. As refugees, they often become undocumented workers – in countries renowned for their garment industries. Much more research needs to be done on intersections such as these; history has shown how common it is for refugees to find themselves in modern slavery.
Photo: Mehedi Hasan/NurPhoto/Getty Images
There is also a burgeoning garment industry in Ethiopia, but its relatively new status as a garment industry hub – as well as the media’s overwhelming focus on south Asian countries – means that it has largely escaped international scrutiny. Some reports, however, have hinted at maltreatment and exploitation. Klotz agrees that these newer, lesser-known hubs are the ones most in need of investigation. But exploitation also happens right beneath our noses. Recent research has shown that in wealthy countries like the United States and even the United Kingdom, workers are forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions for approximately $4/hour.
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Fashion needs to change its business model, says Safia Minney. The founder of ethical label People Tree has been pushing for change since the early 1990s. "Back then there was a little awareness about sweatshop exploitation of workers making training shoes and denim in Indonesia," she says. "That’s how I became interested in fashion and the human rights violations that take place behind the glamour." Safia made it her mission to educate consumers, and she has made documentaries, hosted press trips to boost media coverage of exploitation, and written books like Slave to Fashion to help bring workers’ stories to light. "I wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," she says.
Increasingly, young independent designers are rising to this challenge. OneByMe’s no-waste formula is a great example, as is Bethany Williams' model of using recycled materials. Leading ethical label Ninety Percent has a business model that ensures 90% of distributed profits are shared between charitable causes and the makers of the collection. Customers even get a say in which charities the money goes to. "We wanted to challenge the usual exploitative model, which features very little giving back and lots of benefits for stakeholders," says cofounder Shafiq Hassan. Emerging labels are often best placed to enact change. Operating on a comparatively small scale makes it easier to keep track of every link in their supply chain, and to experiment with innovation.
But larger, multinational brands have more work to do to comprehend the many layers of subcontracting in their international supply chains – something they have never previously had to worry about. The garment industry, like all truly global industries, is tangled up in complex debates about human rights violations, immigration, and corporate regulation. And companies still profit from exploitative governments. (Some brands have even outsourced the manufacture of their 'Pride' collections to countries that persecute LGBTQ+ people.)
So yes, after recent tragedies became headline news, some brands are engaging with efforts to bring more transparency to the industry. And that is a good thing. But it's important that we notice it's often the 'reputation-sensitive' brands (which consumers may have traditionally associated with garment worker exploitation) that are increasing their reporting – from nothing to something, but definitely not the whole story.
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