From Field to Factory, Why Transparency Is So Much More Than Kate Moss In A Slip Dress

by: Rosie Dalton | 5 years ago | Features

Image: Transparent is one of our 8 Well Made Clothes Values.

When Bangladesh garment factory Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013, the fashion industry held its breath. “Perhaps just as shocking as the events that transpired,” Business of Fashion later wrote of the fatal disaster, “was that many of these brands, including Joe Fresh, hadn't even the slightest clue that their own production was taking place in that facility. Their auditing system failed. They just didn't know.” Nothing sums up the need for transparency quite so neatly as this. Because, yes, supply chains are inherently complex. And, yes, this is especially true in the context of fashion.

Transparency is essentially the disclosure of information relating to a brand’s material sources, manufacturers and other suppliers.According to the 2013 Australian Fashion report conducted by Baptist World Aid and Not For Sale Australia, though, a whopping 61% of Australian companies surveyed didn’t know where their garments were made.

Not only that, but 76% didn’t know where their fabric was woven, knitted or dyed. Shifting responsibility now means that plenty of brands are unaware of safety issues and poor working conditions in their own supply chain systems. Which is of particular concern for fashion, because it’s an industry so dependent upon appearance. The vivid colour of a particular top, for instance, won’t necessarily belie the severe environmental damage that may have gone into achieving that very hue. And a beautifully embellished skirt mightn’t convey the fact that, somewhere in the world, a woman probably produced it for less than a fair living wage.

Thankfully, growing numbers of both producers and consumers are now striving to address these concerns. But it is still not enough. A fact demonstrated by Baptist World Aid’s most recent Australian Fashion Report for 2015. According to Advocacy Manager at Baptist World Aid, Gershon Nimbalker, “the 2013 factory collapse sparked the collective conscience of consumers and retailers to know more about the people producing our clothes and how they are treated." However, “while an increased number of companies know the factories where their final manufacturing takes place, only nine per cent have traced down to the people picking their cotton.”

“If companies don’t know or don’t care who is producing their products,” Nimbalker continues, then “it’s much harder to know whether workers are being exploited or even enslaved”. Except that, unfortunately, it is safe to assume that — unless stated otherwise — they are. This is simply the tragic norm of today. As The Age points out, “nine out of 10 companies supplying clothes to Australian consumers do not know where their cotton is sourced and most fail to pay overseas workers enough to meet their basic needs.” Which is where supply chain honesty comes in.

Transparency is nothing new, though. In fact, it’s a quality that most of us would say we value greatly throughout our daily lives. In our relationships and our workplaces; our favourite media outlets and our organic grocers. The difference between a non-organic bottle of wine and a non-organic cotton t-shirt, though, is that you can feel the effects of its chemical component the next day. So the reason someone might buy an organic Pinot Noir, for example, comes down to knowing where it came from and how it was made. The same should be true for clothing, then.

Just like food and drink, clothing comes into contact with our bodies each and everyday. But, unfortunately, the simplicity of a plain white tee can disguise the complex history behind its original inception. From cotton field, to fabric mill, and garment factory — we can ascertain very little about each individual process just by looking at our clothes. Even their Made in’ tags can be misleading at times, too. So rather than feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of all this, why not take the guesswork out of the equation? This is something that we can all achieve by seeking out brands with transparency at their core.

Well Made Clothes, aims to demystify the source of our clothes, so that customers can better trace the journey of their garments. Not only does brand transparency allow consumers to more informed wardrobe decisions, it also minimises labour exploitation in the process. So the brands that fall within this value, then, all make a concerted effort to trace the source of production and materials in their garments. In other words, they open up their books to show us where their clothes were made.

With this knowledge, consumers can then make more educated wardrobe decisions. Because knowing the source means better rights for workers and less risk of irresponsible practices like illegal chemical waste dumping and child labour. According to The Guardian, the International Labour Organisation “estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond”. Meanwhile, Andrew Morgan’s documentary The True Cost details some of the horrific circumstances under which workers in the apparel industry are still forced to work. The very least we can do, then, is to support businesses committed to changing this culture. Because, as Business of Fashion asserts, “fashion brands can choose to know as much or as little as they’d like about their production. At Rana Plaza, the world saw what it looks like when a brand knows too little.

At the heart of it, transparency is all about being honest. But more than this, it is also about empowering brands to make a concerted effort in minimising the risk that workers might be exploited in the production of their clothing. In turn, it is about inspiring shoppers to do the same, by questioning the supply chain behind their clothing. As individuals, there is much that we can do to change the culture and it all starts with understanding the real value of clothing. “It doesn’t take much for the end-consumer to make a difference to the lives of those making our clothes,” explains Gershon Nimbalker from Baptist World Aid. “Research shows an additional 30c per t-shirt would ensure living wages are met in Bangladesh”.

It is as simple as being more mindful and demanding better from our favourite brands, by looking for and asking more about their supply chain systems. With these small shifts in attitude, we can actually make a huge difference. It’s not about perfection; it’s about promoting a culture of honest and ethical production and consumption. "Designers and brands have a responsibility to provide transparency information to consumers," explains fashion consultant Tim Gunn. "Otherwise, it's just a lying deceptive shell game." What we do with this information is another thing altogether. But if we all put our money where our mouths are, we can quite literally change lives.

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