Photo credit: Another Tomorrow
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When we talk about brand accountability, we can’t ignore the importance of transparency. In the fashion industry, experts agree that the most effective way for brands to be ethical is to map their supply chains.
Supply chain mapping is the practice of tracking and reporting each step of the production process, from the gathering of raw materials to the final distribution of goods. Supply chains have four tiers:
- Tier 1: Factory Manufacturing (Cut-and-Sew)
- Tier 2: Processing Facilities (Fabric Dyeing and Finishing)
- Tier 3: Processing Facilities (Textile Spinners and Processors)
- Tier 4: Raw material suppliers (Farms and Synthetic Material Factories)
“Supply chain transparency is foundational to systemic change in the fashion industry,” says Becca Coughlan, Transparency Manager of the fair-wage activist organization Remake, “because you cannot manage what you do not measure.”
Reporting where and how their materials are sourced causes brands to be actively aware of the labor and waste practices occurring in their facilities. It not only gives them the opportunity to rectify and prevent future harm, but also puts pressure on them from activist organizations.
“The more visibility companies have (and publicly disclose), the easier it is for companies to set and achieve a living wage and working condition improvement goals,” Coughlan says, “and the easier it is for organizations like Remake to hold them to account when they fall short.”
Why Don’t Most Brands Map Their Supply Chains?
According to the Fashion Transparency Index, in 2021, 47% of brands published their first-tier manufacturers, but only 11% mapped their supply chains all the way to tier four, where the raw materials are sourced. “The reality is that fashion brands know exceptionally little about what happens in their product supply chain,” says Kathleen Grevers, the Director of Education at Fashion Revolution USA.
Supply chains often span across the globe, with little to no interference from the brands the materials are sourced for. In fact, many companies are unaware of where and how their initial materials are made.
“Historically, many brands argued that they could not reveal where they were sourcing from as this was proprietary information,” says Vincent DeLaurentis, Director of Outreach at the Worker’s Rights Consortium, a labor rights organization that investigate factory conditions. “Once more brands started to disclose their supply chains, it became clear that this was untrue, as most brands source from the same sets of factories.”
In actuality, these brands avoid transparency so they can’t be held accountable when injustice and massive violations are exposed.
“Brands are resistant to disclosure because it leads to heightened scrutiny of their factory conditions,” says DeLaurentis. “When we know where the factories are, we can investigate the conditions in which garments are produced, including wages.”
But just because many brands don’t look the ugly truth in the face, doesn’t mean that they’re not responsible for what their business perpetuates.
“Overall big brands and retailers — whether luxury, high street or fast fashion — are not taking on the systemic reform needed to counter fashion’s negative impacts on people and the planet,” says Coughlan.
But they may have to soon. New regulations in both the US and the UK are cracking down on previously overlooked issues in the industry, including wage and supply chain transparency.
This legislation includes The Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, which requires large fashion brands (that earn over $100 million globally) to map at least half of their supply chain. This will also force them to report wages and waste to monitor their environment and labor standards. Brands that don’t comply may be penalized financially.
“The issues in the garment industry are structural,” says DeLaurentis. “Brands must be open about where their clothing is coming from so that independent monitors can assure they are living up to their obligations to workers.”
Brands That Are Transparent Down to Tier 4
Until compliance with this legislation becomes the norm, we can help bring structural change to fashion by shopping from brands that are committed to supply chain transparency. That’s why we made a list of the most transparent brands you can shop from.
This New York-based luxury staples brand is dedicated to being as transparent as possible. Every clothing item on its website links to a “provenance journey,” which tracks each step of the supply and production process. You can also access this information through the QR code on the product tags.
Since its birth in 2012, this organic basics brand only uses cotton grown in the US. In addition to mapping its local supply chain, Harvest and Mill uses data science to keep track of its environmental impact. The close watch of its short supply chain results in significantly less water consumption, energy use, and harmful chemicals.
Born in Southern California in 1978, this comfort-focused apparel brand started its sustainability-focused website in 2020. Almost all of its leather and sheepskin is sourced from Leather Working Group certified tanneries, most of which can be traced back to Australia.
Eileen Fisher, a New York-born women’s fashion company that focuses on simple and quality design, maps its supply chain from its farms to factories. Its organic cotton is sourced in New Mexico, while its wool is from Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. It also uses recycled fabrics such as cashmere, nylon, and polyester.
Gildan, a Candian company that produces colorful and comfy basics, is an award-winning brand in sustainability. Ninety percent of its cotton is sourced in the US, where it is spun and sent to factories in Honduras. Its textile and sewing operations occur in Central America, the Caribbean, and Bangladesh. You can find all factory locations here.
Timberland, an all-weather apparel company based in New Hampshire, started mapping its supply chain in late 2018. Its leather traces back to all over the world, including China, The Dominican Republic, Italy, Vietnam, the US, and Germany. Its active factories (as of December 2020) can all be found here.
This Swedish denim company uses organic cotton sourced in India, Turkey, and Uganda. It offers free repairs for life with every pair of jeans it sells. While its had a production guide since 2013, it took the next step to introduce supply chain transparency into its model in 2020. Additionally, it ensures the factories it works with are safe, ethical and pay a living wage to every employee.
This California brand offers timeless dresses made of regenerative cotton from a farm cooperative in Erode, India, and produces clothing in both India and Los Angeles. Christy Dawn is dedicated to doing its part to not only support workers’ rights, but to fight climate change as well. You can read more about its farm-to-closet initiative here.
This Australian-born denim brand is highly aware of where its materials come from, down to the cotton seed. Its organic cotton is sourced from certified suppliers from Turkey, while production primarily takes place in Outland’s own facilities. You can take a look at its complete supplier transparency list here.
Born in 1991, this UK brand offers unique designs on classic clothing styles. Its products and materials are sourced by fair trade groups and handmade by producers in Bangladesh and Nepal. While its wool is sourced in New Zealand, its main organic cotton supplier is Chetna Organic, who grows cotton in India.