Transparency has become a bit of a buzzword in the fashion industry and judging by the number of times it was mentioned at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, it is a trend that we are not going to shake anytime soon. Quite the contrary, transparency is reshaping how brands and retailers interact with their suppliers and consumers. But can it really transform the entire fashion industry? C&A Foundation’s Leslie Johnston hosted a panel of experts to find out.
Johnston kicked off the first panel discussion of the 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Enabling Transparency to Create Change, by defining transparency as: “Disclosure of information in a standardised manner that is accessible to all and enables comparison.”
“Transparency is the first step towards a different culture for the fashion industry — one where brands become accountable and open, and consumers and citizens are ready to scrutinise and stay vigilant,” said Orsola de Castro, founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution.
The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh was the fashion industry’s wake-up call, firmly placing lack of transparency under the spotlight. “The fact that in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, some brands still didn’t know if they were producing garments there, was a ‘never again’ moment,” de Castro added.
Participants of the panel agreed that five years on, the fashion industry has witnessed a major shift in the acceptance of supply chain transparency. Brands and manufacturers finally accept that it’s no longer possible to hide behind closed doors.
“From a brand perspective, we see that transparency improves workers’ rights, builds trust and credibility and advances ethical business practice,” said panellist Frouke Bruinsma, Corporate Responsibility Director at G-Star Raw.
Key stakeholders are embracing transformative partnerships, strategies and initiatives to create a more open and honest global fashion industry. The Bangladesh Safety Accord was a breakthrough in holding garment companies to account for the working conditions in their supply chains and covers around 60 major international brands using 1,200 Bangladeshi factories.
And in 2017, Fashion Revolution launched the Fashion Transparency Index, a benchmark tracking how much brands reveal about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts. Retailer Target is one of the 150 brands ranked in the index, joining a growing list of companies publically committed to transparency in its supply chain and identifying areas of improvement.
“Through transparency, we’re able to drive accountability within our supply chain,” said Amanda Nusz, VP of product quality and responsible sourcing at Target.
While many brands and retailers are starting to recognise their responsibilities towards workers and consumers, there’s still much work to be done. “But what is the biggest barrier to transparency?” Johnston asked the panellists.
The answer that arguably drew the most applause from the crowd was from Mostafiz Uddin, managing director of Denim Expert Ltd., and founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange, when he illustrated the barrier of cost by comparing transparency to organic food. “Somebody has to pay for it, whether that’s consumers or brands.”
De Castro argued that, besides barriers such as trust and competition, the main barrier remains a cultural one: “The fashion industry was built on secrecy and elitism; it was opaque. Transparency is disruptive — in that sense, it’s a breath of fresh air and a useful weapon for change. We want to know how our clothes are being made, wherever they are manufactured. But the fact that we want to expose and understand the whole of the supply chain as a system is a barrier itself.”
Another challenge is uniting an industry governed by so many rules and standards, with panellists agreeing that convergence is necessary to create an industry that benefits consumers, brands, buyers, manufacturers, workers, communities and the environment at large.
“Brands need to come together and to follow a roadmap so that consumers can see the same type of data across brands and so make more informed decisions,” Bruinsma said.
And finally, while the tide is turning in favour of transparency, de Castro stressed that transparency alone is not a solution to building a better fashion industry. It’s just the first step. For brands and retailers, having an open and transparent approach to business is no longer just favourable, it's a necessity.