How to Fix Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index

Done right, transparency matters because it has the power to make suppliers visible — and that’s what we need to credibly verify brands’ actions against their words.

Kim van der Weerd
May 16, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Brian Ceccato on Unsplash

I recently published a piece about how Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index inadvertently encourages a culture of control over equal partnership. Nevertheless, transparency is an important piece of the sustainable fashion puzzle.

Making transparency an effective tool of equal partnership requires re-framing why it matters. The reason knowing who made our clothes matters isn’t so brands and retailers can examine what is going wrong in in their supply chains. It matters because consumers need to hear from the people who made their clothes to be able to credibly evaluate brands’ statements against their actions.

It’s worth revisiting the logical premise upon which the Transparency Index as it currently stands is founded: the report asserts that if we know where and by whom our clothes are made, then relevant stakeholders can work together to fix the problems. The disclosure of more credible and comparable information enables accountability, and accountability drives change.

This logic is full of ambiguities. Who are the relevant stakeholders that should be working together? Even if they can work together, will they? How does the fact that we don’t know where our clothes come from prevent us from working together? What’s the problem in need of fixing?

Ultimately, the problem the Transparency Index aspires to address is one of trust between consumers and brands, between sustainability advocates and brands. Brands put out so much information about their allegedly sustainable business practices — is it meaningful? Or is it green-washing? The Index itself even questions whether brands are deliberately publishing an abundance of information to make accountability tedious and time consuming.

To re-establish trust, consumers and sustainability advocates need a way of verifying the information brands put forward. A way of checking whether brands are “walking the talk.” But consumers and sustainable fashion advocates don’t have access to the information they need to evaluate this.

In its current form the Transparency Index attempts to deal with this information gap by asking brands to fill it. It’s understandable — brands are the gatekeepers to the rest of the fashion supply chain. But in so doing the Index undermines the very problem of trust it seeks to fix. It’s like asking someone to mark their own exam.

The criticism H&M received for using its Transparency Index scores as an insincere marketing tool goes to show just how ineffective the Index is at re-establishing consumer-brand trust.

Meanwhile, suppliers are one of the few stakeholders with a front row seat to brands’ inner workings. They uniquely have access to the information consumers and sustainable fashion advocates need to crosscheck brands’ actions against their words. But because consumers don’t know who made their clothes, these players are invisible.

And that’s why transparency matters. It has the power to make invisible stakeholders visible. And in so doing, make the information consumers and advocates need to hold brands accountable available.

Yes, the Transparency Index should evaluate (and thereby pressure) brands to publish their supplier lists. The traceability section of the Index as it stands does a good job of establishing this.

But the Transparency Index needs to go further than making suppliers visible. Knowing who made consumer’s clothes doesn’t mean suppliers will be willing to talk about it. Fear is a real barrier. As a former garment factory manager, I feared retribution, being on the wrong end of a power struggle with a brand, losing orders, and having my margins squeezed. And that made me reticent to share what I experienced. I can do so now because I’m no longer a garment factory manager, and don’t aspire to be one again.

The Transparency Index should evaluate whether brands have taken steps to address this fear. Have brands tried to remove the obstacles that prevent suppliers from disclosing the information needed for accountability?

To continue with the gate keeper analogy, have brands merely opened the door? Or have they actively taken steps to get information flowing more freely through it?

Here’s another analogy: as a factory manager I struggled to employ more women in our sublimation department. The use of big machines made recruiting women to this department a Herculean task. It didn’t matter that the pay was better and came with more potential for career advancement down the line. After months of recruitment, we succeeded in hiring one female operator for the department. She resigned a couple weeks later.

When I demanded an explanation, the head of department shrugged his shoulders — so what if she preferred to work in sewing? He couldn’t force someone to like sublimation. But he’d missed the point: his job as a manager, as a person in a position of relative power, was to take special measures to ensure that she felt supported, to understand why women were reluctant to work in his department, and to address those concerns.

Just like the female employee shouldn’t have been responsible for explaining herself, the onus shouldn’t be on suppliers to come forward. As stakeholders in a position of power, brands have a responsibility to understand the silence of their supply chains and take measures to address its causes.

One such measure would be disclosing the results of Better Buying surveys. Better Buying collects anonymous feedback from suppliers about brands’ purchasing practices, but the results aren’t public. By volunteering this currently private information, brands would be empowering the voices of their suppliers. A Transparency Index that tracked and evaluated this would directly support the disclosure of information consumers and advocates need to hold brands accountable.

Another such measure would be evaluating whether brands advocate for and elevate marginalized supplier voices within industry forums and membership organizations. Or whether brands release information about pricing. Price benchmarks would empower suppliers at the negotiating table and facilitate more open conversation.

If we acknowledge that the fundamental problem transparency seeks to address is consumer-brand trust, then we also have to acknowledge that asking brands to evaluate themselves isn’t going to help. Transparency shouldn’t be about helping brands fix their supply chains. It should be about empowering the people who make our clothes to be both visible and heard. Only this will enable consumers to credibly evaluate brands’ statements against their actions. Only this will make transparency a tool of equal partnership.

To find out when I’ve written something new, keep in touch.

Kim van der Weerd

Written by

Co-host of Manufactured podcast, sustainable fashion advocate, former garment factory manager.

JUST FASHION

Radically reimagining the fashion industry with equity and justice for all. We are writers and industry professionals discussing not only why the fashion industry needs to change, but how to do it.

Kim van der Weerd

Written by

Co-host of Manufactured podcast, sustainable fashion advocate, former garment factory manager.

JUST FASHION

Radically reimagining the fashion industry with equity and justice for all. We are writers and industry professionals discussing not only why the fashion industry needs to change, but how to do it.

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