Who made your clothes? If you shop at H&M, that answer may not be as opaque as it once was. The Swedish fast fashion giant announced this month that “for each of our garments, we now share details such as production country, supplier names, factory names and addresses as well as the number of workers in the factories” in furtherance of an effort to “make it easier for customers to make more informed choices when shopping.”
The move, which coincided with the release of H&M's 11th annual sustainability report, comes five years after the retail giant first made public the names and addresses of a portion of its suppliers in Bangladesh and 22 other countries, with their permission. This time around, H&M says that “all garments on hm.com” will include product transparency information.
The effort by H&M, the second largest seller of apparel in the world, following Zara’s parent company Inditex, has been met with skepticism. Inc.’s Jana Kasperkevic, for instance, noted early this month that “while H&M boasts the move as a step towards transparency, it seems to be a marketing initiative aimed to build the company's brand” more than maybe anything else. “It caters to younger, socially aware audience," Jaime Katz, equity analyst with global financial services firm Morningstar, told the publication.
Others have rightfully noted that the seemingly remarkable step by H&M fails to take into account the truly vast network of sub-contractors that are the foundation of the global garment manufacturing chain. It is well established that most garment manufacturers rely heavily on garment and textile industry contractors and a network of tens of millions of global subcontractors to assist in the production cycle, whether it be by embellishing tops with lace, beads, or button, or engaging in other hand-sewing or dying tasks.
Factory owners and their contractors can cut costs by relying on subcontractors, who usually work from home, removed from the formal employment relationship and thus, cut-off from benefits, such as over-time pay, the ability to unionize, and in many cases, even minimum wages. These subcontractors do not technically fall under the organizational umbrella of a company like H&M (since they are hired by a contractor), and thanks to the often informal nature of their work (as opposed to that of employees). As a result, these individuals almost always go unaccounted for in reports of a company’s supply chain, thereby making most supply chain transparency initiatives woefully incomplete.
Nonetheless, as the New York Times’ fashion director Vanessa Friedman stated on Tuesday, H&M’s decision to open its books from a manufacturing perspective “is a start,” and something that “every brand should do.”
So, why don’t more brands do this? To a large extent, a company’s supply chain is viewed as trade secret information – a core asset that needs to be carefully and vigilantly shielded from competitors. As Nelson Switzer, director and leader of sustainability business solutions at PwC, told Inc., while H&M publishing its supplier factories is a good marketing move, “disclosing the names of your suppliers can dull your competitive edge.” In other words, companies potentially set themselves up to have competitors co-opt their manufacturers if they opt to make those names public.
That has been a significant motivating factor for brands across the board, from Louis Vuitton and Gucci to sustainability-centric ones like Everlane, all of which have opted not to make such grand revelations, and in most cases, have prevented their suppliers from doing the same. Hence, the notoriously iron-clad non-disclosure agreements that high fashion brands thrust upon their outside suppliers.
Regardless of H&M’s motivations – whether this is the latest iteration of greenwashing or purely a marketing effort aimed at millennials, who care quite a bit about sustainability according to no shortage of survey findings – the initiative by a retailer of this scale could trickle down and help push others to follow suit. And that would be a big deal.