Transparent fashion: why the industry needs to come clean on supply chains

| 8th November 2011
Transparent fashion
Adding to your wardrobe can be an ethical nightmare, which is why a number of eco-brands are working on new systems that show exactly where your clothes come from
The lack of detail released by fashion brands about the people who actually make our clothes and the methods used in production has long been a bone of contention for ethical campaigners. But as fashion's environmental and humanitarian impact comes under increased scrutiny - both in the press and within the trade itself - some labels are adopting a refreshingly open approach to transparency. Rapanui is one such organisation. The young company has been attracting attention with its 'traceability' map - a tool that gives shoppers an interactive way to see the story behind their clothes. By typing a garment code into the Rapanui website, customers can follow the trail of that item on a map, from seed to shop. It offers information on the fabric used, the working conditions in the field, the ethical credentials of the factory involved, manufacturing and transportation. The full working map went live in April last year, and provides traceability for every stage of the production process for every single product Rapanui sells - something the founders believe is a world first. 
 ‘When we started, we wondered why it was that electrical appliances and food had information on exactly where and how products were made, but clothing didn't,’ explains co-founder Rob Drake-Knight. ‘It's not that people don't care about the products they buy - it's just that they don't have the information available to them to make the correct decision.’ Elizabeth Laskar, an ethical fashion consultant and one of the founders of the Ethical Fashion Forum, says that this sort of tool can benefit the ethically-conscious consumer, the brands they buy from, and the suppliers that produce the clothes. ‘Traceability systems are good news for the fashion sector. Organisations like Rapanui are being accountable to the environment, their suppliers and their customers, and have developed something that is unique to themselves.’
Drake-Knight says that, contrary to what some might expect, the tool was reasonably simple to set up. The ethical credentials of each stage of the process are verified through the use of certifications such as the Global Organic Textiles Standard and organisations such as the Fair Wear Foundation. ‘We made a few phone calls and sent a few emails and had all the information we needed with very little effort. I don't think it's a question of it not being available. I think it's a question of asking.’ He believes that the resources are there across the industry to put these tools in place. ‘If you consider how much power large brands and high street stores have and how much their suppliers want to keep them happy, it's just about asking for the information. It does obviously get harder for larger brands because there's a lot more information they need to get hold of.’
Some companies, however, have found the process far from straightforward. MADE-BY, a not-for-profit organisation working to make sustainable fashion common practice, and runs a Track&Trace system. The tool is currently being used by five of the organisation's partner brands. Germany General Manager, Ulrich Vangemmeren, argues that gathering information for product traceability can have a number of complications. ‘It's a system based not on a brand declaring how its products are made but on information given by each individual supplier in the chain. It's important to have this independence, but it's also one of the challenges. Small brands, for example, can have less impact and less ability to pressure their suppliers to enter data in time and deliver certificates.’ It's because of this that some brands signed up to MADE-BY's Track&Trace system then decided to leave it again. ‘How can you guarantee sustainability in the chain if only one supplier enters data?’ asks Vangemmeren. ‘You have to get everyone to do it.’
Rapanui may be in a stronger position than its competitors when it comes to collecting data, due to the fact that its business was built around the idea of transparency. In contrast, many companies face the challenge of integrating it at a later stage. But it's not an insurmountable task. New Zealand-based brand Icebreaker has proved as much. The playfully-named Baacode system gives an insight into the lives of the wool farmers at the start of the chain. ‘Setting it up was a huge challenge, but once we got it running it was pretty good,’ explains Viv Feldbrugge, technical, quality and environment manager for the company. ‘We've got a system in place where our supply partners send us electronic information overnight, every day.’ There are some items, such as multi-coloured hats and scarves, that the company does not currently track because of the more complex processes involved. But according to Feldbrugge, Icebreaker is considering the viability of offering a more comprehensive approach to traceability across the whole supply chain. The real challenge, she notes, is to expand the programme in a way that will work long-term as the company grows. 
Whatever the difficulties of setting up a system like this, Lasker is confident the movement is a convincing one. ‘The concept is needed and will stay,’ she says. ‘It may develop into a legal requirement over time, especially if carbon reduction plans come to fruition. My hope is that more retailers will pick up the baton to become accountable and transparent about everything they put in their shops.’ At the moment, according to campaigners, the majority of big name brands still apply a broad brush approach to their ethics rather than offering information product by product.
H&M, the only high street brand approached for this piece to respond directly to questioning on the subject, says that it hopes to be able to offer ways to measure product sustainability in the future, but adds that competitive concerns must be taken on board. It does not specifically commit one way or the other to a traceability system.
‘In the future H&M will be able to offer customers the possibility to measure the products sustainability, and to compare H&M products with what other apparel and footwear companies have to offer,’ it said. ‘We consider transparency as an important element of our sustainability work and communication. That is why, for example, we disclose all results of our supplier audits in our annual sustainability report. Due to competitive reasons, however, we cannot disclose supplier names.’ But there is one big brand embracing the idea right now.
In August, Marks & Spencer signed up to a partnership with supply chain traceability specialist Historic Futures that will see the retailer provide full traceability on every single clothing product and home product it sells, from the raw material stage to the store. 'String' will describe where and how every product was made, including the source of raw materials such as cotton and wool. 
It is interesting to note that each of those already running traceability systems takes their own approach to the issue of naming suppliers. While Icebreaker and MADE-BY provide the name of the farm, the location and details on some of the people who work there, Rapanui offers ethical credentials, locations and methods but not specific supplier names. Laskar points out that fashion ethics is fast becoming a competitive game. ‘With climate change and economic issues at the forefront of global and national agenda, retailers are having to market themselves differently if they want to keep a “slice of the pie”,’ she says. ‘If a customer can go into a shop and, without even trying, has bought into carbon reduction and sustainability, a retailer has potential to survive in the market place.’
But tools must be accessible and easy to use if fashion brands want to make sure their efforts pay off. In response to this concern, Rapanui has started using QR codes to take shoppers to a static version of the map with explanatory text and images below. For Icebreaker, a key issue is awareness. The Baacode system has been up and running for three and a half years, and during that time it has received around 600,000 hits. But that figure looks small when you consider that the company has sold around 2.6 million items this year. ‘We're having a workshop in November on the evolution of the tool - how to improve uptake, how we can engage the customer better,’ says Feldbrugge. For shoppers knowledgeable in the ethics of fashion, these tools can simplify the shopping process, but buying and business consultant Alex Smith believes that some consumers may need additional information on what is good and what is bad in a supply chain. ‘Consumers still need to compare and research to make informed decisions between brands and products,’ says Smith, who founded the consultancy Considered Style. ‘So they need clarity on what is acceptable, why or why not.’ 
Ultimately, notes Laskar, with so much input required from so many different parties, providing true transparency in the production cycle is a challenge for the whole industry - and not just now, but for the long-term. ‘There can be complications with these systems, and they have to stay open to develop,’ she says. ‘With supply chains webbed across the globe, such systems are dealing with a wide range of political, economic, technological and cultural situations. Essentially, they rely on the contact points across the globe to be honest, efficient and transparent.’


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