The sweeping, multi-national supply chains of Western apparel and accessories brands “have gotten so large and out of their own control [that] they often do not know” where – exactly – the products bearing their brand name are coming from and conditions in which they are being made, says Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. And shockingly, given the size and complexity of the modern network of suppliers that a mass-market or even semi mass-market fashion brand relies upon, Cline is right.
Even more shocking than this revelation is, on its own, in light of rapid advances in technology and the resulting level of oversight that brands can have in connection with their brand-owned/operated factories and third-party manufacturing partners, one could argue that little has changed in terms of supply chain sustainability and transparency.
To determine what brands are and are not making strides in terms of identifying the various points within their supply chains – focusing on everything from sustainability efforts to child labor, no small number of non-profit organizations routinely review the workings of public-facing companies and summarize those findings. For instance, global not-for-profit organization Fashion Revolution routinely looks to 150 brands that have a turnover of more than $500 million and are located in Europe, North America, South America or Asia to see which can identify where their products are coming from and what they are doing to improve the conditions of their supply chains.
In its annual report, entitled, The Fashion Transparency Index, Fashion Revolution rated fashion companies based on how “transparent” they are. Fashion Revolution looked to an array of factors, such as their public disclosure of their internal policies and commitments when it comes to sustainability, governance, traceability, and reporting, among other. Its findings confirmed what has long-been established: the luxury sector tends to lag far behind others in providing information about suppliers.
On a scale from 0 (i.e., brands that disclose little to nothing about the policies) to 100 percent, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, and Burberry all scored in the 31 to 40 percent range, meaning that they “are publishing suppliers lists, as well as detailed information about their policies, procedures, special and environmental goals, supplier assessment, and remediation policies.”
Chanel scored 3 percent. Dolce & Gabbana scored 1.2 percent. Dior, Barney’s, and Longchamp scored zero, all falling into the lowest percentile, which means that these brands “are disclosing nothing at all or a very limited number of policies, which tend to be related to job hiring practices or local community engagement activities.” Also in that 0-10 percent range are: Amazon (10 percent), Armani (8 percent), Valentino (9 percent), Versace and Carolina Herrera (5 percent), and Marc Jacobs and Tory Burch (3 percent).
While none of the 150 retailers on Fashion Revolution's 2018 list scored higher than 60 out of 100, faring particularly well this year were Spanish fast fashion giant Zara (42 percent), German sportswear brand adidas (58 percent), H&M (55 percent), Old Navy (54 percent), and Marks & Spencer (51 percent).
How does a brand like H&M, which has been very notoriously plagued with both environmental abuses and human rights issues within its supply chain, or adidas, which as recently as recently as a year ago was in the midst of a sweatshop scandal in connection with its Yeezy Boosts, routinely outrank brands like Dior or Chanel on lists such as this, you ask? Well, there is a rather simple explanation.
Sustainability and/or transparency-centric rankings, including The Fashion Transparency Index, are almost always based entirely on publicly available information. For Fashion Revolution, that is the core of the ranking: how much info brands are providing. While the list is aimed at “pushing the industry to become more transparent” and does, in fact, do a commendable job at raising awareness of some of the issues at play, such lists can undoubtedly be problematic for a few reasons, the most immediate being that the publicly available information is made available by the brands, themselves. This means that brands have the freedom "to use clever marketing and storytelling in lieu of actual monitoring and accountability," per Elizabeth Winkler, writing for the Washington Post.
According to Winker, this is further compounded by the fact that “apparel makers lack a common definition of what constitutes ‘sustainability,’ ‘transparency’ or ‘ethical sourcing.’ In the absence of a uniform standard, each company can assess its ethical record independently and is free to give themselves all the accolades they like.”
Such an industry-wide dynamic unfortunately leaves a lot of room for brands to skew the narrative in their favor, and game the system, so to speak, in order to land top spots that they might not otherwise deserve.