Transparency: not just a motto, but definitive action for transforming the world

Mariana Xavier

By Mariana Xavier

The fashion industry has a troubled history when it comes to transparency. Known for having a highly complex, fragmented and difficult-to-trace production chain, the business model often means a limited overview of what conditions clothes are produced in, opening up gaps that can lead to workforce being exploited. From the famous 1911 fire at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, which killed more than 140 workers – mostly women, and which led to the fight for women's rights – up to today's decentralised and highly complex models that make it hard to hold brands to account, the industry has more than its fair share of negative incidents.

A number of more hard-line initiatives have recently started to herald a turnabout and gain momentum. One of their principles was to create the Fashion Revolution movement in 2013, which emerged in response to a textile factory collapsing in Savar, Bangladesh, killing more than one thousand workers. The movement encourages reflection on fashion's cost and impact on society and the environment. Fashion revolution promotes debates on sustainability at events and workshops around the world.

Transparency: A fundamental leverage

For brands to become increasingly sustainable, Fashion Revolution believes in transparency as a fundamental leverage. In 2016 the movement created the Fashion Transparency Index, setting out technical parameters for assessing the quality of information major brands provide the public on their practices. The index is updated annually, making it possible to draw comparisons and demonstrate improvements in the transparency levels of every brand assessed. The  2018 global report identified point-improvements of approximately 10% for 16 companies, which indicates the effectiveness of the index to inspire brands to become more transparent and accountable of their practices.

In recent years, the fundamental demands from the public, the call for more transparency, and improved information availability have led to a significant changes in the paradigm of how private institutions act. Whereas previously, concern regarding the supply chain was confined to engaged groups with little impact, this is now changing among end consumers, who often demand greater transparency from companies on their social, environmental and labour responsibilities.  And many consumers are starting to use this criteria when deciding which products will and won't make into their shopping bags.

Faced with this reality, corporations are starting to seek out initiatives to make their activities more transparent. In Brazil, it is worth mentioning the work of Abvtex – the Brazilian Textile Retail Association.  Through a Supplier Certification Programme, they  aim to prevent practices that exploit labour in its associates’ production chains. Abvtex recently started publishing a list of every certified supplier, updated daily and available on the association's website.

Driving change on many levels

On a global level, the Open Apparel Registry, launched a platform in 2019, which makes it possible to geolocate factories and their respective partners around the world, on an interactive map. The platform is based on information already made available publicly by brands, but as an open-code initiative, it also allows any user to add further information.  The call for a minimum standard of transparency is the main objective of the Transparency Pledge, which is led by Human Rights Watch.  Together with brands, the Transparency Pledge conducts campaigns to publish information, on every factory within the brands supply chain,  in a standardised and therefore comparable manner. The process is only publicly recognised once various criteria has been met, such as guaranteeing ease of access and the clarity of information provided on products and recording the percentage of all suppliers participating in the final production amount. The information has to be updated constantly, to encourage changes to be monitored continually and positively.

Nevertheless, even with the countless positive examples of increased transparency, there are still challenges to overcome. The main obstacles to any initiative primarily involve the language and accessibility in making information available. Data is frequently published without planning to establish a target audience, or forecasts of the effects it will cause both to decision-makers and those to be held accountable. Further  precautions are also required, such as defining consistent measurement criteria, the frequency of disclosure and, above all, the availability of information that is effective in building real transformations.

The concept of transparency and the actions to promote it are based on assumptions much more complex than sporadic communication strategies. To get satisfying results, measures encouraging behavioural and structural transformations must in fact be adopted, placing relevant information in the hands of actors capable of pressurising decision-makers to make that change.

The path is an arduous one in any large-scale production sector, and not just in the fashion industry. It involves a continuous process, in which the most significant cornerstone is promoting a cultural change so marked that it makes corporations view their activities in a more comprehensive manner. This goes through various revisions – including when devising business plans – which should treat transparency not as an afterthought, but rather a common thread in every strategy. Decision-makers being accountable to various audiences is the key point for the production sector to be truly aligned with its consumers' interests, guaranteeing decent working conditions for millions of workers comprising this production chain; thus setting a solid transformation in the world economy into motion.


* The opening photo of the article was taken at the launch of Fashion Index Brazil 2018.


About the author

By Mariana Xavier

Programme Manager at Laudes Foundation for the Labour Rights Programme.