Five years on from the Rana Plaza disaster, Drapers examines whether the fashion industry has stepped up its efforts to improve supply chain transparency, and how it can benefit brands and retailers.
Five years ago, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 workers. The catastrophe and its aftermath – in which clothing labels from high street retailers such as Benetton and Primark were unearthed from the ruins – were a sobering wake-up call for those that had failed to keep track of their outsourced supply chains.
The tragedy placed the industry’s lack of transparency squarely in the spotlight. Since the disaster, lobby group Fashion Revolution has been ramping up the pressure on brands to disclose more information on their supply chains.
Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, notes: “Transparency alone does not represent the structural systemic change we want to see in the industry, but helps us to reveal the structures in place so we can better understand how to change them.”
Ranking brand transparency
As part of this effort, Fashion Revolution publishes an annual report, the Fashion Transparency Index, on the commitment companies make to cleaning up their supply chains. The latest edition charts what was publicly disclosed around policies and governance in 2018.
It ranks the amount of information disclosed by 150 of the world’s largest fashion businesses by turnover on a range of issues, from workers rights to eco-friendly efforts.
Adidas and Reebok topped the survey as the most transparent overall, scoring 58% each, closely followed by Puma and H&M group at 56% and 55% respectively. The best-performing UK retailers were Marks & Spencer, which scored 51%, and Asos, which posted 50%.
In 2018, 16 of the brands surveyed boosted their transparency levels by 10% or more. The report also showed significant improvement on disclosure in the luxury and premium sectors. Hugo Boss, Gucci and Burberry were among several scoring 31%-40%, after increasing their results by 11%, 8% and 7% respectively on last year.
Fashion Revolution’s head of policy, Sarah Ditty, says luxury brands that were not drawn into the ethical trading discussion until recently, as their suppliers are largely based in Europe, are starting to realise how transparency can work in their favour.
“Luxury brands [that] have amazing stories to tell about people who make their clothes – ateliers, amazing fabrics made by artisan communities with heritage – are not sharing these stories,” says Ditty. “But they are starting to see how it can make their brand image more positive and engaging.”
Some retailers have found that increased disclosure has presented business opportunities. Catarina Midby, sustainability manager at H&M UK and Ireland, affirms: “Transparency is important in empowering customers to make informed choices when they shop for fashion.
“It also [strengthens] long-term relationships with our suppliers, and empowers and benefits textile workers within the supply chain.”
While some might struggle to reconcile transparency with the aim of lowering costs, growing public awareness means it could be harnessed as a tool to build consumer confidence.
Phil Cumming, senior sustainability manager at M&S, explains: “The customer space is changing. We – consumers included – are all much more aware of our personal impact on the world, demanding greater transparency and where and how [clothes] are sourced, and they want us to make it easier for them to make the right decisions and make a difference.”
However, Cumming admits that meeting these expectations does not come without challenges: “The further [back in] the supply chain, the harder transparency and understanding how things are managed are,” he says.
“We are very clear we have much more still to do, and initiatives like [the transparency index] allow us to benchmark ourselves and understand how we can change [our practices] for the better.”
The call for change
To fuel an upward momentum across the industry, Fashion Revolution launched a manifesto in parliament on 23 April with a 10-point vision for the industry. It calls for:
- dignified working conditions for workers
- fair and equal pay
- freedom to negotiate conditions
- respect for artisans and craftsmanship
- solidarity within the supply chain
- protecting the environment
- reuse, recycling and upcycling
- transparency; accountability
- measuring success by sustainability and human well-being, not just profit
- and establishing fashion as a positive means of self-expression.
The organisation aims to garner support from designers and producers. It plans to present the petition to policy makers and brands at an event organised by the European Commission in June, as a blueprint for action that starts not just internationally, but domestically.
Debbie Coulter, head of programmes at the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations, observes: “It’s incumbent on us to recognise that transparency often starts at home, not just in global supply chains.
“You don’t have to travel along the back streets of Dhaka or Delhi to find out there are places in east London, Manchester and Leicester where garments are being made in the most horrific conditions.”
Cumming says: “[Dealing with ethical issues are] not down to any single brand, government body or civil society to solve, but should be a collective response. We need to see greater convergence, which we are starting to see. But it’s a journey.”
It is clear that the Rana Plaza tragedy has incited meaningful change in the industry and growing transparency has led to retailers becoming more accountable for their supply chains.
There is clearly a long way to go – after all, none of the brands or retailers surveyed reached 60% transparency, and there are evidently many issues that need to be addressed in greater depth – but the industry has taken a vital step in the right direction.
Transparency: 2018 facts and figures
The top five Europe-based retailers
1. Adidas/Reebok (58%)
2. Puma (56%)
3. H&M: (55%)
4. C&A: (53%)
5. Marks & Spencer: (51%)
European retailers disclosing nothing
2. Max Mara
6. S Oliver
Brands posting the largest year-on-year improvements in disclosure
1. The North Face, Timberland and Wrangler (VF Corporation) (+22%)
2. C&A (+19%)
3. Asos (+18%)
4. Esprit (+17%)
5. Benetton (+16%)