On the 6th anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy – how transparent are fashion brands being now?

With thousands of people taking to the streets to protest climate change and hundreds arrested over it, conversations around the impact we’re having on the environment have reached fever pitch.

And few meaningful dialogues about tackling the environmental issues facing the planet would be complete without mentioning fashion. It is one of the top polluting industries – so much so that earlier this month Extinction Rebellion staged a mock fashion show on Oxford Circus in London to protest the impact of fast fashion.

Extinction Rebellion’s Fashion: Circus of Excess catwalk in Oxford Circus, London, highlighting the wasteful and disposable nature of the fashion industry on April 12 (Yui Mok/PA)

This week is Fashion Revolution Week, organised by the non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution which works for a more sustainable industry. As part of the week, it has released the fourth annual Fashion Transparency Index, where 200 brands are ranked not just in terms of environmental transparency, but also with human rights issues.

The fashion industry is leaving behind huge amounts of waste (Fashion Revolution/PA)

It’s also six years since the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh which killed  1,135 people working in unsafe conditions in garment factories supplying cheap clothing to some UK high street brands. So what does the index teach us about what’s changed and what should consumers and brands be doing to help create a more transparent fashion industry?

The Fashion Transparency Index

The Fashion Transparency Index isn’t about listing which brands are the most eco-friendly or who is doing the most for human rights. It’s all about how much information is publicly available regarding these topics: policy and commitments, governance, traceability, supplier assessment and remediation and spotlight issues (which focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals).

Fashion Revolution has chosen 200 of the world’s largest brands and retailers across luxury and fast fashion, and has evaluated how open they are about these key issues, giving an overall transparency percentage. Sports and outdoor brands lead the charge with Adidas, Reebok and Patagonia coming in first with 64% transparency – it’s the first year ever that brands have scored more than 60%. ASOS, Puma, Nike, The North Face and Marks & Spencer were all in the 51-60% range, but depressingly the average score was just 21%.

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Today is #EarthDay and it marks the start of #FashionRevolution week 2019. Fashion Revolution Week marks the 6th year after the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh. 1,133 workers died on April 24th 2013, over 2500 remained injured and at least 800 children were left orphaned. Until today little to no compensation has been paid to the survivors. It was in 2013 when I personally turned by back to fast fashion and decided to dedicate my online work to promoting sustainable businesses and burning issues. This years Fashion Revolution week also picks up on Climate Emergency as the fashion system is a major contributor to global carbon emissions, pollution, water contamination and mass extinction. It’s time to ask: Who Made My Clothes? Head over to @fash_rev or @fashrev_de to print out this poster and participate yourself!

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Although the index might not immediately improve the state of the industry, it will hopefully drive change by showing brands where they can do better and making them accountable for their actions.

Founder of Fashion Revolution Carry Somers says: “We believe transparency leads to a greater accountability”, which will in turn lead to positive change in the industry.

Fashion Revolution wants the industry to adopt more concrete and measurable goals, both in terms of the environment and human rights. There has been an improvement in transparency of many of the brands listed on the index – particularly with luxury labels like Gucci and Bottega Veneta – but there is still a lot to be done. “Much of the fashion industry still operates in an opaque manner,” says Somers.

What brands need to be doing

Despite improvements from last year’s index, there’s still lots fashion labels could be doing. One particular issue which has come out of the report is a lack of information around how brands are working for gender equality, which is troubling as women make up the majority of the fashion industry, from the factories to the shop floors.

What the fashion industry does with excess stock is still a relatively murky area, which is surprising considering the uproar around the news of Burberry burning its unsold stock last year. Only 26.5% of the brands on the index are open about what they do with defective or surplus stock, the rest choosing not to disclose any details.

Fashion Revolution hopes to push more brands to publish their supply chains and make them easily accessible for anyone who wants to hold them accountable.

Some brands are taking these issues seriously. Adil Rehman, senior ethical trade manager at ASOS, says: “Without transparency there is no accountability, and without accountability there is no change.” He adds that brands have a responsibility to meet the social conscience of the customer, and transparency is the main way to build trust between the two – saying: “There is no hiding any more”.

What consumers need to be doing

The index arms consumers with more information, which can help us make more clearer choices about where we shop.

Fashion Revolution has created the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes – it has over 400,000 hits on Instagram and is a way for consumers to push brands into being open about their supply chains. Somers describes how an industry insider told her that every person who uses the hashtag is considered to represent 10,000 more people who want to know the same, but haven’t registered this publicly on social media.

Sarah Ditty, policy director at Fashion Revolution and author of the report, says really “the most powerful thing” consumers can do is contact brands directly, asking questions about their policies and practices as well as raising any concerns they might have about the business.

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Next week, on Wednesday, April 24th, we will remember the lives of those lost in the Rana Plaza tragedy six years ago. As always, this day will be a moment to reflect on what the fashion industry has destroyed in its wake, and use this energy to demand change. On this day we will also publish the 4th annual FASHION TRANSPARENCY INDEX. This year’s Index will review the world’s largest 200 fashion brands and retailers, many of which have taken considerable steps towards transparency this year. @SarahDitty, Policy Director and report author says, “The progress we are seeing this year, coupled with the feedback Fashion Revolution has received from brands, suggests that inclusion in the Fashion Transparency Index has motivated major fashion brands to be more transparent.” Yet, the publication will also outline how much work is yet to be done, with some brands reviewed this year receiving a total score of 0 out of 250 possible points. Finally, the report outlines what citizens can do to add their voice to the revolutionary call for greater transparency, shining a light on the power of the question, #WhoMadeMyClothes? Which brands are you eager to see reviewed in the index? Let us know in the comments, and ask them, #WhoMadeMyClothes?

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Consumers could lobby governments to do more as well – Ditty particularly mentions a need for increased pressure to make sure the Modern Slavery Act is properly enforced in the UK.

This pressure from consumers will hopefully push brands into being more open about their environmental and human rights practices across the business.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot of work. Rehman from ASOS describes how consumers want a simple message, but it’s a complex topic and it’s not really as simple as being told which brands are ethical and which aren’t.

Hopefully as brands become more transparent, it will become easier to make make more informed choices about where and how we shop.

You can find out more about Fashion Revolution and the index here.

- Press Association

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