Image: Zara

The supply chains of Western apparel and accessories giants have grown into truly sweeping, multi-national pools of manufacturers, most of which are scattered among far-flung locales like China, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. Given the size, the multi-country reach, and the sheer complexity of the modern network of suppliers that major fashion brands rely upon, and the rampant contracting (and subcontracting) that is at play, these chains of manufacturers “have gotten so large and out of their own control [that] brands often do not know” where exactly the products bearing their trademark-protected names and logos are coming from, nor do they know the conditions in which they are being made, according to Elizabeth L. Cline.

Cline, an expert in fashion sustainability and the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, is right. The Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, in which the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh claimed the lives of 1,132 garment workers and injured even more, and more recent examples of brands’ garments and accessories being made in Chinese detention camps drives home the point that in no small number of cases, brands simply do not know where their products are made.  

Maybe even more striking than that revelation – particularly given the highly sophisticated, multi-billion dollar entities at play – is that despite the significant advances in technology and the resulting level of oversight that brands can reasonably exercise in connection with their brand-owned/operated factories and third-party manufacturing partners, little has really changed in terms of supply chain sustainability and transparency. 

Who Made My Clothes?

Against that background, in order to determine what brands are and are not making strides in terms of identifying the various points within their supply chains (from sustainability-centric efforts to their efforts to address 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, for example, routinely rates fashion companies based on how “transparent” they are. In doing so, the United Kingdom-headquartered group focuses on an array of factors, such as companies’ public disclosure of their internal policies and commitments when it comes to sustainability, governance, traceability, and reporting, among other. Its findings tend to confirm what has long-been established: most fashion and apparel brands routinely fail to provide sufficient information about their suppliers.

In its 2018 report, which largely mirrored those that came before it, Fashion Revolution – using a scale from 0 (i.e., brands that disclose little to nothing about the policies) to 100 percent – put Hugo Boss, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, and Burberry all 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, a few names fared particularly well on the list, namely: Spanish fast fashion giant Zara (with a score of 42 percent), German sportswear brand adidas (58 percent), H&M (55 percent), Old Navy (54 percent), and Marks & Spencer (51 percent). 

How is it that 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 others? The explanation is actually relatively simple, and it goes to the core methodology of many of these rankings.

The Methodology

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 issue is that the publicly available information that these rankings rely upon is made available by the brands, themselves. This means that there is a lot of leeway for brands to skew the narrative in their favor. As noted by Elizabeth Winkler, writing for the Washington Post, this gives brands have the freedom “to use clever marketing and storytelling in lieu of actual monitoring and accountability, and leaves consumers without any way of discerning between brands that actually meet high labor standards and those that only talk about it.”

Such reliance on brand-produced information also leads to potential inefficiency and/or inaccuracy, as “apparel makers lack a common definition of what constitutes ‘sustainability,’ ‘transparency’ or ‘ethical sourcing,'” Winkler accurately notes. “And 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.

Sarah Labowitz, the former co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and policy advisor at the U.S. Department of State, echoes the problem of reports that rely entirely – or almost entirely – on this type of methodology. Speaking of such reports, she recently told Kind Craft: “It was so striking how deferential we all are to the companies themselves in terms of how they’re evaluated. They get to decide what are the salient aspects of their evaluation, as opposed to setting a common standard that all companies in the same sector abide by. If all you’re doing is looking at a company’s self-report on sustainability, then that paradigm rewards companies that are good at communications, right?”

With this in mind, companies that refuse to publicly share manufacturing information tend to be penalized significantly on these rankings, oftentimes without it being made clear to readers exactly why they are ranked poorly. 

As for why fast fashion retailers constantly dominate the best rankings, Livia Firth, an eco-fashion activist, and the founder and creative director of sustainability consulting group EcoAge, says, “It’s very, very simple. Fast fashion brands volunteer a whole lot of information about all of their intentions and their pledges, whereas the luxury brands do not want to disclose anything.”

*This article has been updated to reference brands’ reliance on suppliers linked to detention camps in China.