15 Jan 21 | Opinion
New rankings show the apparel sector talks a good game, but some real action is required
Despite recent headlines and developments – such as adidas’ Speedfactory and Amazon’s patent for on-demand clothing – pointing to increasingly labour-less assembly, the facts are that we remain a long way from fully automated production lines within the apparel sector.
Protecting workers’ rights and safeguarding against human rights abuses is still a key challenge for brands – and being open and transparent in the way they communicate about how and where garments are made is widely acknowledged as a key part of making that a reality.
Fashion Revolution has just issued its latest annual ranking of brands based on how well 100 of the biggest companies across the sector disclose information about their suppliers, supply chain policies, and the social and environmental impacts they are having.
Now in its second year, the ranking scores each brand on a 250-point scale and then converts this into percentages. It asks questions such as: how well are social policies being put into practice?; does the brand publish a list of its suppliers?; how does it assess its own supplier policy implementation; and, how does it deal with any problems that surface.
What is most interesting about this year’s results is that not one company is performing particularly well. The average score across the board is 49 out of 250, so roughly 20%. Even the highest scorers – adidas, Reebok, Marks & Spencer and H&M – struggled to break the 50% mark. In fact, just eight brands out of the one hundred surveyed scored above 40%, with 32 of them scoring 10% or less. Three brands – Dior, Heilan Home and s.Oliver – recorded a score of zero.
However, the index results could be misinterpreted. By its very nature, the scoring relies on publicly disclosed information, so brands that fail to publicise their supplier code of conduct, for example, get no points – even if they have a solid code working in the background. When Fashion Revolution issued its first index in 2016, bottom-ranking Chanel bemoaned the methodology being used arguing that it rewarded communication, rather than action.
But, as Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution counters, “Transparency is about opening one’s front door and allowing others to look inside…the more doors are open, the more the picture becomes clearer, the better we can understand and ameliorate supply chain workers’ lives and the environment.”
Policy, but no action
It is no surprise that most brands score well (above 70%) when it comes to actually having a policy or commitment to tackle specific environmental and social issues. But the analysis suggests that far too few brands publish information about what those policies are actually achieving in practice.
For example, the majority of brands (84%) say they have “factory assessments” in place. But, on average, they score just 21% when it comes to sharing any specific details of supplier assessments, and just 20% on detailing what remediation activities are happening when problems arise.
Of course, companies will argue that there are just some details they can’t disclose if they want to protect supplier confidentiality and maintain key relationships. But it is this detail that must be shared if transparency is to have the desired effect – and the leading companies are acting accordingly.
As the index results highlight, few brands choose to disclose assessment findings on supplier facilities beyond the first tier – yet, this is exactly where most of the risk sits. Similarly, just ten of the 100 brands share lists of suppliers beyond tier 1.
Talk to tier 2!
In fact, it is this group that must be engaged, argues Fiona Wheatley, sustainable development manager at Marks & Spencer, which has been investing in both back-end management systems to build the data and the human capacity to progress its transparency agenda. “Many of the asks are very challenging for brands in the short term, and they depend on upstream suppliers also buying into the value of change.” Companies need to accept that they can’t make a real impact acting on their own. As Wheatley says: “Only through collaboration can we tackle these complex issues, and transparency creates a better environment for collaborative effort.”
As the dial continues to be turned, rankings such as Fashion Revolution – along with initiatives like Project JUST – will continue to highlight the need for not only intention, but also implementation, action and results.
But it is not going to be easy, Wheatley warns. “Given the scale and dynamic nature of garment supply chains, the volume of data generated is not inconsequential,” she says. “Plus, assuming that knowing all aspects of your product supply chain is the only way to drive change can be naïve. Instead, we need to look at traceability as one important tool available to brands; often generic information can inform effective strategies, particularly when tackled at an industry, sector, geographical or topical level.”