Radical transparency has become critical to fashion’s future success, but many in the industry are still missing the mark.
Working hand-in-hand with garment workers and a network of consumer activists, corporations may find themselves more keenly aware of how human rights nonprofits and labor organizers are prodding their values.
Known for its global #PayUp campaign that sharply rebuked fashion brands and helped to recoup $22 billion in orders delayed or canceled amid the pandemic, Remake’s first transparency report was equally chastising and attention-getting — and would challenge companies further.
Reactions were largely positive, even from the brands in the hot seat, but the report raises larger questions as to the status of transparency across the industry — and whether consumers can ever know it all if the industry doesn’t.
“I think it’s important that we continue to be challenged. You know, the Remake [report], it’s refreshing that’s someone’s checking us. It’s important for us to check ourselves,” said Kimberly Smith, chief supply chain officer at Everlane.
The brand, along with H&M Group, Inditex-owned Zara and Allbirds made Remake’s list of sustainability “offenders” for omitting details related to worker well-being and transparency — all scoring less than 36 points (higher being better) on a scale of 100.
Founded in late 2010, Everlane.com built its foundation on delivering ethical, affordable essentials (starting with basic T-shirts and tote bags) without the traditional eight to 10 times markups or overdone assortments.
Everlane urged customers to be curious about their clothing — so they were. One marketing directive said to “know your factories, know your costs, always ask why.” The company’s founders bet on smart, discerning consumers early on. The only problem was, those smart and discerning customers were often their employees. Along with union-busting allegations earlier this year, company criticism would include curious employees poking holes in its internal sustainability claims.
“We’ve had our bosses brush off concerns about, say, the sustainability or environmental impact of silk and been trained to ignore calls for vegan products in our interactions with customers,” said one former Everlane customer experience agent and union member who wished to remain anonymous. The source said transparency and “values” were mostly a marketing effort when they worked there eight months ago, though they are unable to speak to the current culture. All employees were trained to embody the brand’s sustainability and transparency ethos.
In addressing what’s happening in Everlane’s supply chain, Smith stressed that sustainability-focused supply chain efforts saw no budget cuts amid the pandemic and that a majority, or 95 percent, of their vendor relationships have been maintained throughout the pandemic. “Still being able to do that during a global pandemic is refreshing. To be able to continue that work,” she said. It may be especially refreshing, given that even sustainable brands would have to make sacrifices during a financially challenging year.
Everlane’s approach to sustainability is “focused and deep, rather than broad and narrow,” residing in two key commitments devoted to reducing reliance on virgin plastics and improving uptake in organic fibers.
Within the last year, Everlane launched its organic commitment. Already organic cotton comprises roughly 40 percent of the company’s material mix. Everlane’s commitment to remove all virgin plastics by the end of 2021 is on track, as the brand has transitioned 90 percent of apparel materials that contained virgin plastic to recycled materials made from plastic water bottles, fish nets and other items typically destined for waste.
“It’s a fine line as to how transparent you can be and not be greenwashing. As I’ve said before, we’ve done a lot of work and haven’t shared it. So we hold back and wait till it’s complete until we share it. So, there’s that fine line of how much do we share and when,” Smith said. “I think we’re still fine-tuning it. Transparency is obviously rooted in what we do. And transparency internally and externally.”
Reformation’s Kathleen Talbot, chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations, also weighed in on Remake’s report, where the brand earned a higher “wannabe” passing score of 53 (above 50 is passing). The brand ranked second only to Madewell in the “wannabe” category (defined as brands that are making progress but “not yet fully impressing” Remake) and scored higher than Nike, Lululemon, Theory and Matt & Nat, among others, yet still came up short in a few sourcing-related areas.
“That’s always the tricky part of these assessments. There isn’t a single measuring stick for sustainable fashion,” said Talbot, adding “which is a large part of why Remake did do the sustainability report. There is a real fear of greenwashing for consumers.”
The Reformation team has been in dialogue with Remake following the report’s release. “I really appreciate organizations like Remake who can be independent, but I don’t think that’s at odds with being consultative with brands,” said Talbot, who pointed to the previous reporting the brand has done.
As a climate-neutral company, Reformation is striving to be “climate positive” by 2025, an effort it revealed Tuesday.
“This is somewhat uncharted — there is no standard or definition yet,” Talbot said. The company will build a roadmap over the next year with its detailed strategies, informed by existing research and programs like the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol.
For any company today, is there risk in paving the way with transparency?
“I think there’s always a risk in that we are committing to something that is really ambitious and in some ways untested. We may not hit the mark, but it’s worth it. In order to respond appropriately to the climate crisis, we need to be bold,” Talbot reiterated.
Last year, Reformation was one of a handful of brands that consulted U.K.-based eco-consultancy Eco-Age to do a performance benchmark. The methodology followed 16 international sustainability and fashion industry frameworks including B Corporation criteria, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the International Labor Organization’s core labor standards. Not one brand scored higher than 50 percent, out of a total 339 points — again reflecting the nuances of reporting.
Reformation lists its long-term tier one supplier partners including finished goods manufacturers and their subcontractors in a quarterly list, as well as noting the date of last audit, among other details.
“We really went to triage mode with our suppliers,” said Talbot on how the pandemic tested Reformation’s integrity as a brand partner. The brand did not cancel orders and stuck to original payment agreements. “The health and sustainability of our brand is only going to be reflected by the health of our supply chain partners.”
Praise accompanied the Remake report for its neutral stance, but some questioned whether brands were motivated to make viable changes.
“I think it’s very well done,” said Lauren Fay, founder of New Fashion Initiative, a nonprofit centered on policy and education in fashion. “It’s great that neutral academics gave input for the framework, and that like Fashion Revolution’s transparency report, it is thorough. However, I am not sure how much brands are motivated by these public rankings. I think they may just inspire them to improve their marketing. When you look at teams of these companies (especially the bigger ones), they still have small CSR, governance and [diversity and inclusion] teams compared to their p.r. and marketing teams. And the little bit of hiring that is happening this year seems even less sustainability focused. Although, we don’t know if they are working with consultants, etc.”
San Francisco-based shoe retailer Allbirds Inc. has been a certified B Corporation (a legally binding badge of honor for mission-driven companies) since December 2016, close to its founding. On the most recent B Impact assessment, the company outperformed the average score of 50.9 points, with 89.4 points on a possible scale of 200 points. Criteria ranged from governance, workers, community, environment and customers. Meanwhile, on the consumer rating platform Good on You, the company performed strongly earning 4 out of 5. (For comparison, the platform’s metrics helped inform Remake’s transparency report).
Remake was complementary in its carbon emissions goals but chastised Allbirds, noting in its transparency report: “There are no details on the brand’s site detailing who is actually making these shoes, how they are treated, or what they are paid.”
However, since the report’s release, the FAQ page of Allbirds’ web site has been updated to include more information on vendor code of conduct, affirming: “Allbirds’ success depends on our supply network partnerships and the people who make our products,” outlining its Responsible Sourcing Program — including its supplier code of conduct and third-party social assessment expectations for not just suppliers but sub-suppliers — in depth.
INDUSTRY ILL-PREPARED TO ANSWER CALL FOR TRANSPARENCY
The goal of any transparency report is to create accountability, alignment and publicly available information. In an era where only 20 percent of consumers trust brand sustainability claims, is full public disclosure from brands the only combatant to greenwashing until legislation is a reality?
“I absolutely think so,” said Remake founder and chief executive officer Ayesha Barenblat, calling it the million-dollar question. “There has been this co-opting of interest as more consumers are interested in sustainability,” especially from “media darlings.”
The Remake report made it clear that brands would have to perform well on environmental and social factors, though there were still some discrepancies. One broad callout in the Remake report was the addition of new production partners in China (a reason given for why Reformation was categorized in the wannabe category), but media darlings and rock-star brands alike boast partners in the country. Based on supplier lists available on their web sites, sustainable lifestyle brand Outerknown had roughly 30 percent of its suppliers in China, while Patagonia only showed about 11 percent of its finished goods being sourced in China.
It shows that outlining country of origin alone was never enough. Factory abuses can occur anywhere, be it the U.S. garment manufacturing hub in Los Angeles, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or China.
Remake said its methodology sought additional substance behind sourcing. All of Remake’s “rock star” (its highest category) brands (including Mara Hoffman, Nudie Jeans, Patagonia) named at least some of their suppliers in a list format (with the exception of Raven + Lily and Nisolo, which highlighted artisan community partners).
International human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch champion that same stance, and it’s one of many organizations pushing a “Transparency Pledge,” on apparel brands in 2016. HRW affirmed that names and addresses of not only brand-owned factories — but subcontractors — is “key information” to report today to catch any missteps, as per its web site. The organization also believes companies should report where they source cotton and other materials.
It turns out, though, even among the top-ranking transparent brands who report their materials mix, not knowing fiber origins is still commonplace.
On its web site, Nudie Jeans detailed its supplier list all the way down to raw materials but identified a few gaps of GOTs-certified cotton with “unknown” origins. According to Textile Exchange’s material change insights report from 2019, brands are still largely in the dark as to where their raw materials originate. The majority of survey respondents could not trace the origin of their manmade cellulosic fibers (or 57 percent), while polyester wasn’t far off that percentage with a stark 48 percent of polyester production by uptake volume derived from unknown origin.
Today, the industry still has mixed opinions as to how much transparency is feasible and, moreover, do consumers have the right to know everything about how a product is made or sourced today?
“Clearly, there are aspects of source materials, sourcing methodology and fulfillment methodology that constitute competitive advantage and that brands would sometimes rather not disclose,” said Niall Murphy, chief executive officer and cofounder of Evrythng, a software platform that leverages Internet of Things technology to create traceable digital product identities that correspond with physical products for brands like Ralph Lauren, Procter & Gamble and Moët Hennessy. “Consumer insights research indicates that consumers are increasingly focused on labor practices in manufacturing and raw materials production, the ESG impact of supply networks, and the prospects for recycling or resale of products. But what consumers have a right to know and what they demand to know may not always be the same thing.”
Adding to that, he said, “the key lies in specificity and measurability,” noting: “Brands that are able to specify how their sourcing and logistics practices affect their sustainability impact differ significantly from those that just communicate about their values and make nonspecific claims. Companies that share where their materials come from, the certified practices they use in their factories and the carbon impact of their transportation routes demonstrate that they take accountability seriously.”
“Absolutely, without question, consumers have a right to know everything about how a product is made and sourced today,” said Dana Cohen, founder of Hyer Goods, a newcomer elevated accessory brand appealing to a more conscious consumer with the use of upcycled materials.
Cohen spoke of the rampant “disconnect” between product and supply chain that’s fueling a lack of accountability — and lack of consumer trust — brought in focus amid the pandemic.
“Who or what is this privacy aimed at protecting? Are we protecting corporate interests? The consumer? The future of the planet?” Cohen probed.
“While I don’t think the industry is even able to do this yet, I think brands should be responsible for tracing the entire supply chain to the source and disclosing that to the public,” Cohen said. “Right now there’s so many layers and a lot of companies don’t even know where their supplies are coming from. So while public disclosure is needed, I believe the onus lies in the consumer. The status quo will only be disrupted once people start asking the right questions of the right people and demanding, with their dollar, answers and accountability.”
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