Sweatshops show need for transparency

Controversy over child labour in Asian sweatshops producing cheap clothing for the UK market has highlighted the need for greater control over supply chains, writes Jim McClelland


Stopping shoppers at the checkout to ask opinions on traceability, supply-chain transparency and reputation might well result in furrowed brows, blank stares and potential for industrial language.

Strong words of a different kind could be expected in response to questions about horsemeat, sweatshops and child labour, animal testing, conflict minerals or rainforest deforestation.

Transparency already impacts brand reputation, in the media and public consciousness.

Whether manifest in placards outside a store or Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Blood Diamond, it walks and talks from the high street to Hollywood. There is more than one app for that, plus a flood of online petitions and “buycotts”. Transparency is a serious issue.

On April 24, Fashion Revolution Day marked the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, which claimed the lives of more than 1,100 garment-factory workers in Bangladesh.

To raise awareness of the human cost of irresponsible supply-chain practices in the fashion industry, the campaign invited members of the public to wear their clothes inside out, revealing what was made by whom. In response, tens of thousands in 58 countries worldwide demonstrated support for transparency and change, with a direct fashion statement of their own.

Messaging was powerful and to the point, as Fashion Revolution founder and Fair Trade pioneer Carry Somers explains: “As consumers, we no longer know who makes our clothes. We don’t know the true cost of things we buy. The garment-industry supply chain is fractured and producers have become faceless. This is costing lives. Fashion Revolution Day asked one, seemingly simple, question: who made your clothes?”

It isn’t so much about preventing bad news, but about sharing the truth and consideration that goes into making a product

Remarkably, it seems consumers are not the only party short of answers. The AustralianFashion Report 2013 found that 61 per cent of companies do not know where their garments are made either.

Where retailers, brands, suppliers and manufacturers do know, confidence in sharing that information remains a concern, according to director of historic futures Tim Wilson. “It is possible to deliver transparency into global supply chains at scale, but most actors in the chain are fearful. They perceive far greater downside possibilities from aggressive customer behaviours and liabilities than upsides from incoherent evidence of greater market share or category growth,” he says.

Peer pressure can pull along those less inclined to jump and, as Ms Somers notes, leadership by example picks up the slack.

“A lot of retailers cite the need to protect their sources from competition, but if H&M can publish full factory lists online, it makes me wonder whether this is often little more than a convenient excuse,” she says.

Data gathered at Isle of Wight eco-fashion label Rapanui shows more orders and better brand loyalty thanks to traceability. Company co-founder Mart Drake-Knight appeals for a little perspective on what is actually being asked of the supply chain.

“Extreme examples of commercial sensitivity are used, but the reality is consumers would like to see where things come from, how they are made and who made them. They don’t want the factory owner’s phone number – some pictures or video of the process would be a nice start,” he says.

Global accessibility and sharing of digital information, especially via mobile technology and social media, is often flagged raising the stakes for retail reputation and risk as bad news now travels further and faster. However, the same advances also enable fuller and quicker data collection, performance assessment, regulatory compliance, and reporting on the part of retailers and supply chains.

“Advances make providing traceability and transparency for consumers even easier, not harder,” says Mr Drake-Knight. “Our traceability maps are made with an open-source, free-to-use piece of software any retailer could set up for very little or nil direct cost.”

Amisha Ghadiali, co-founder of online platform and maker community Provenance, asserts that there are positive tales out there to be told (and sold). “It isn’t so much about preventing bad news, but about sharing the truth and consideration that goes into making a product,” she says.

As demand-side starts demanding, the advice coming out of the branding community is to keep the supply-chain story simple. The mantra for smart retailers today is captured in just five words by director of environmental strategy at clothing company Patagonia, Jill Dumain, in the TV documentary The Naked Brand: “Clear is the new clever.”