Guest Blog: The quest for transparent clothing (no, not see through!)

MAI Guest blog - Jo SalterA blog about ethical clothing – by Jo Salter

Jo is an Ethical Business Buddy and founder of Where Does It Come From? – the brand creating Kind Clothes that tell tales.

The question of where our ‘stuff’ comes from is one that is in the public eye more than ever before. It could be because globalisation and technology has opened up avenues of information that were just not available before. It could be because there is just so much more product in our lives – clothing, gadgets, vehicles and more.  It could be because of the complexity of what is being created for us and the realisation that much of it can have negative impacts.

But whatever it is, the media has now (finally) caught on to the public interest and is uncovering stories – usually negative ones. We’ve read about T shirts created for feel good campaigns, such as Comic Relief’s Spice Girl T shirts created in slave conditions, face masks being churned out by child labour and, more recently, labour abuses in factories much closer to home – Leicester!

Transparency Mustn’t Mean Complacency

But why is it so important that we have this information? One main reason is to understand, and hopefully avoid, the negative knock on effects from when large quantities of products are being created using a very low budget.  When we talk about transparent supply chains we are asking for brands to clarify all the materials and processes used in a production, the location and working conditions of factories and any other impacts such as on the environment from freight, chemicals used in agriculture or processing and even the packaging used. This is a big ask, especially as many brands had become used to operating in a low price auction with factories – a kind of out of sight out of mind philosophy. Often they didn’t (don’t) know where the whole of the product is being made, where original fibres are grown, whether factories have subcontracted work somewhere else. Transparency is a major step – some brands can’t yet answer and some don’t want to, for obvious reasons.

However being transparent doesn’t necessarily mean that the supply chain is a good one, it’s just that without transparency how is it ever going to get better? Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index makes this point clearly – rating major brands on their transparency but not on their ethics. However the follow up from transparency is likely to be improvement – who wants to air their dirty washing in public?

As founder of a clothing brand that has put transparency at our core, I believe that understanding and being open about supply chains is a vital step in growing customer understanding, hopefully leading to culture change. If a customer buys an item and is able to find out about the origins of the materials, the workers who made it and the positive impacts on areas that are important to them – animal rights, environmental, fair trade – then the next time they shop they will be expecting the same level of brand commitment. I would also argue that this as another benefit for customers – peace of mind – which actually makes us feel happier!

So ignorance isn’t bliss?

Unfortunately we’ve been trained by clever advertising to believe that we can have whatever we want when we want it.  The negative impacts of this ‘right’ are not our responsibility – we don’t need to worry our pretty little head about that. We’re conditioned to believe we can trust our brands to make the right decisions, and if they don’t then we can trust our governments to monitor and correct.

Sadly neither supposition is correct.

In the first case – Brands: In the main we know that most (if not all) fast fashion brands are in it to make money. For example the UK brand BooHoo (who own many fast fashion brands including Pretty Little Thing) have been in the news lately for the revelations of supply chain abuses in the UK (pay well below minimum wage and covid 19 related abuses). The family behind the brand are now billionaires and expecting a £150 million bonus this year following the company’s sales increase of 45% (up to £368 million), just in the three months to end of May 2020.  I’m sure other fast fashion brands are similarly focussing on solely the financial bottom line.

In the second case – Government: Following a long review by the UK Environmental Audit Committee in 2018/19, including interviews with major fast fashion brands, every single one of the recommendations was rejected by the UK Government. These recommendations were designed to pressure brands to take responsibility for the problems being caused to the environment and the workers by their low cost low quality approach. The UK Government approach is to encourage brands to police themselves, within the existing environmental and worker rights legislation. Those of us working in the ethical fashion field are wholly unconvinced by this approach! It hasn’t stopped us though, there’s amazing work by organisations such as Labour Behind the Label, the Clean Clothes Campaign and others to ‘encourage’ the government to take a firmer stand.

Positive News for Customers (and the rest of the supply chain)

1. There is a wider choice of brands that Care

There has been a huge growth in the number of smaller brands that are challenging the status quo. This is a great thing even if many of them do not survive, which unfortunately a big risk at the moment due to economics. These brands are challenging the more established ones with their transparency and positive actions. I believe that customer behaviour will change as they gain higher expectations of the amount of information they receive and greater understanding of the issues.

The brand I founded in 2013, Where Does It Come From?, has aimed to do this. We work with social enterprises in India and Africa to create clothing and accessories with positive benefits to farmers and garment workers, using only eco-friendly materials and processes. Our main USP is that each product comes with a code on the label, so customers can get to know the whole story. My goal is to inspire people to ask more questions (hence the company name!) and transfer this behaviour into their other shopping.

Recently there’s been many more brands joining us and we do work together as much as possible to spread the message rather than compete aggressively. The first goal is to grow awareness and widen the market for all of us.  The most longstanding and successful of the ethical clothing brands include People Tree and Patagonia, smaller favourites of mine include Bushbells, Arthur and Henry and Y.O.U Underwear. All of these have tip top transparency along with social and environmental mission.

2. Technology

The other good news for customers is the increased use of technologies like Block Chain. These are used to securely track each step of the production process so that brands and auditors know exactly what happened throughout a product’s creation.

This technology can be used to accurately share garment stories with customers, just as we do it with Where Does It Come From?, but this technology will make it available to more brands and will be scalable as a brand grows and has more supply chains. It also adds a third party seal of approval. Companies like Provenance, Everledger and Retraced. Everledger has a strong history of tracing diamonds all the way from the mine to the jewellery they end up in!

Technology in general has a hugely positive part to play in awareness. I recently co-ordinated the online conference Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution in which we were able to include voices from farmers, garment workers and lobbyists from all over the world. People can now have their say from anywhere, even if it’s a cotton field in Asia.

So what now?

The signs are there that a growing number of customers do want to embrace more ethical and green lifestyle choices. There are more options out there for them to do so and there is more general media coverage of the issues around fast fashion. Yes, there is still a HUGE customer audience supporting the thriving fast fashion sector, but the fact that some of those brands are using sustainability words in their marketing means that the impact is happening – they know they can’t ignore it. What will be interesting in the coming months will be to see how much covid 19 has had a negative effect.

Personally I feel that whatever the hurdles, we are heading slowly in the right direction. Growing media attention, the increase in transparent brands and growing customer awareness will soon create a watershed. Ethical brands will no longer be referred to by that name, they will just be brands. Consideration for people and planet will be business as usual and transparency will be the norm.

Let’s hope it’s soon, the need is urgent.