This weekend saw the 3rd anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 people. As you may remember, the building hosted several factories, making clothes for global brands including Benetton, Primark, Monsoon and Walmart. When cracks appeared in the building, shops and offices closed and evacuated. The clothing factories remained open, the owners insisting that workers report in and threatening them with fines if they did not turn up for their shifts.
There were all sorts of contributing factors to the disaster. The building was a substandard construction, with extra floors added illegally. It was built as offices and couldn’t handle the heavy machinery and vibrations of the factories. There was corruption involved, incompetence, misunderstandings, greed. And somewhere in there is the responsibility of global corporations who don’t ask enough questions about where their clothes are made, who makes them, and in what conditions.
The event was sufficiently shocking that it’s proved something of a catalyst. There have been renewed efforts to get clothing companies to agree on better conditions and health and safety standards. It’s also inspired a wave of campaigns and initiatives to raise awareness of the darker side of fashion and push for higher standards.
Fashion Revolution is a new campaigning agency that has been set up since 2013. It aims to run one campaign a year, launching on the anniversary of the disaster. This year they have partnered with Ethical Consumer to produce the Fashion Transparency Index.
The Index ranks a number of high profile brands on their efforts to operate transparently – do they publish a list of suppliers? Do they monitor suppliers? What happens if a supplier isn’t complying with their guidelines? Do they engage positively with unions and other local welfare groups?
Transparency matters because the public need to know what companies are up to. It allows us to make choices about the brands we will buy from and those we won’t. It also matters for the companies themselves, if they’re even remotely interested in taking responsibility for their supply chains. We know for a fact that some clothing companies can and do turn a blind eye to the question of who makes their clothes. When the Rana Plaza disaster happened, several of the big brands couldn’t confirm one way or the other if the factory made their clothes, even though their garments were being pulled from the rubble.
As the report says, “It is impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected and that environmental practices are sound without knowing where their products are made, who is making them and under what conditions. If you can’t see it, you don’t know it’s going on and you can’t fix it.
The best performers on the Fashion Transparency Index are Levi Strauss & Co, H&M, and Indetex (which owns Zara, Bershka, Pull&Bear and various others).
At the bottom came Claire’s Accessories, Hermes and Chanel, the latter managing just 10 out of 100.
As a measure of transparency, the Index isn’t showing who is the most ethical. It’s attempting to show who is most willing to engage with the issues and be open about what they’re doing. One notable thing about the list is how poorly many of the world’s luxury brands score. Is it because Prada or Louis Vuitton are less ethical than others, or that they maintain their mystique by operating a closed shop?
It’s worth taking a look at the list to see how your favourite brands score. If you’re disappointed in what you find, let them know. Engaging with them and asking them to do better is more productive than boycotting them. The little form on the homepage of Fashion Revolution is perfect – rather than harangue the companies and trigger the pre-written excuse email, it asks them who you should thank for making your clothes.
And if you’re curious to know what full transparency might look like, check out my own favourite clothing company: Rapanui. Every item in the catalogue is fully traceable, right back to who grew the cotton.