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Eleven years after Rana Plaza, where is the fashion industry in terms of transparency?

By Simone Preuss


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Business |Interview

Activists protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to mark the 11th anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building on 24 April 2024. Credits: NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

Eleven years ago today, on 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers and injuring more than 2,500, many of them severely. All of those deaths and injuries could have been prevented had the five garment factories housed in the building evacuated on time like the other businesses in the building - among them a bank and shops.

Upon seeing cracks in the building façade and other businesses evacuating, one may ask what made garment workers go back into a building that was clearly not safe? The answer is simple - fear and desperation. Fear of not having a job if refusing to go back into the building and desperation of holding onto that job, which was needed to survive, to pay for basic necessities like food and rent mainly, and children’s eduction and medicines if any money was left.

FashionUnited wanted to know what has changed since then and what still needs to change for the industry to make sure this situation never happens again. We spoke to Liv Simpliciano, policy and research manager, and Lauren Rees, digital communications assistant, both at Fashion Revolution. The non-profit was founded in 2014 in response to the Rana Plaza collapse and has grown into the world’s largest fashion activism movement that mobilises citizens, brands and policymakers through research, education and advocacy with the aim to create “a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit”.

The Fashion Revolution team with Liv Simpliciano (third from left) and Lauren Rees (fourth from left). Credits: Fashion Revolution

One important area to tackle is transparency, which, ten years ago, when Fashion Revolution was founded, was not really seen as a must-have by brands and retailers. In fact, many were against disclosing their suppliers as they did not want to lose a competitive edge, especially among luxury brands.

Would you say that since then, the industry has come a long way?

Yes and no. The last decade has seen transparency in fashion’s supply chains become a mainstream concern, and we have seen some of the world's biggest brands make encouraging progress since the launch of the Fashion Transparency Index (FTI) in 2017. However, looking at the wider picture, there are still too many brands that just aren’t disclosing anything year after year, overall industry progress is incredibly slow with an collective score if just 26 percent.

What do you think are the major achievements in terms of transparency?

Our FTI 2023 report had 61percent engagement from the 250 brands we analyse in the Index, which demonstrates a huge shift in brand engagement since the launch in 2017. In this period, we have seen 86 percent of major fashion brands that have been analysed continuously increase their levels of disclosure with an average of 15 percentage points, with some of these brands increasing their transparency by up to 54 percent. It was also unimaginable that luxury brands would ever disclose their tier 1 suppliers when we first launched the FTI in 2017 but in 2023, the five biggest movers were all luxury brands, with Gucci scoring an overall 80 percent.

Where do you think the industry is lacking in terms of transparency?

While transparency has entered the mainstream, the industry is reluctant to make progress on the issues that matter most, such as living wages, overproduction and decarbonisation. Despite brands promising fair pay to the workers who make their clothes, they have little to show on progress over the last decade. Living wages are the most important issue to the people who make our clothes and yet still, 99 percent of the brands in the Index do not disclose the number of workers in their supply chain paid a living wage.

Street stitching at Mend in Public Day London 2024. Credits: Fashion Revolution

Meanwhile, brands across all market segments continue churning out enormous volumes of clothes each year and promoting a culture of overconsumption which is antithetical to sustainability and climate justice. Only 12 percent of the brands we review disclosed their annual production volumes, highlighting a clear lack of transparency on information any viable brand intentionally tracks.

Against the backdrop of a worsening climate crisis, it is alarming that little more than a third of the world’s largest brands discloses a time-bound and measurable near-term target for decarbonisation verified by the Science-based Targets Initiative, with just 9 percent of brands disclosing their annual investment in decarbonisation. The lack of disclosure on these key issues is concerning and leaves us questioning whether brands are addressing them at all.

Would you say that brands and retailers are warming up to the idea that transparency should be a must-have?

With incoming legislation, soon transparency won't be an option, it will be mandatory. Brands should engage with the process as soon as possible to ensure they are prepared for the regulatory reckoning facing the industry.

The truth of the matter is that whilst more than half (52 percent) of the 250 brands we review disclose their first tier supplier list, this also means that almost half of the industry still doesn’t do this. Disclosing your supplier list is really the beginning point of accountability.

"Who Made my Clothes”. Credits: Fashion Revolution Vietnam

Some brands that we have reviewed in the Index continuously since 2017 still score 0 percent. These are the brands that will hopefully be moved by legislation because it is clear voluntary transparency has not been their interest. Amidst a deepening climate crisis, a lack of transparency at this stage signals an interest in maintaining the status quo. A lack of transparency prohibits collective action and progress on key human rights and environmental issues. Any brand that is serious about redressing and preventing harm must place transparency at the foundation of their strategies.

Are brands realising that transparency also makes economic sense?

Transparency and traceability is the underlying requirement of the huge majority of incoming legislation from both the EU and the US; brands that do not adhere to these requirements will be subject to economic penalties. From a business perspective, it is wise to start preparing for incoming legislation, ensuring you are doing the work to trace and measure the social and environmental impact of your supply chain now is a vital step to preparing for the evolving operating landscape that is, and will continue to impact fashion businesses over the coming decade.

However, the environment, communities and the people who make our clothes have long paid the price for a lack of proper due diligence. Transparency and traceability should not be adopted solely for its financial benefits - it should be embraced in the name of justice.The costs of due diligence should be absorbed by brands, who are in positions of immense power. Importantly, these strategies must be strong enough to reach the most vulnerable stakeholders in the supply chain. All in all, it is far cheaper to remediate risks before they end in tragedy than to pay huge retrospective costs and fines. Brands are responsible for preventing tragedy and must be held accountable when they fail.

Do you think the pandemic has given transparency efforts a boost?

Pre-pandemic, sustainability and transparency were seen as a ‘nice to have’. Once the pandemic happened, the first teams to be furloughed or cut were sustainability teams at fashion brands. The pandemic had a huge impact on retail. The industry massively backslid on human rights and environmental issues and exhibited deplorable behaviour - for example order cancellations at scale and workers’ wage theft.

In the UK, for example, we saw a pause on brands’ Modern Slavery Statement reporting as the government made a concession to pause on disclosure - unfortunately at a time when modern slavery risk was at an extreme high. We saw a dip in disclosure of brands we review in the Fashion Transparency Index in response - which again underlines why mandatory legislation is so sorely needed as when given a chance to disclose voluntarily, some brands may choose to withhold information without mandatory pressures.

Mend in Public Day London 2024. Credits: Fashion Revolution

We also saw a lag in updates on brands’ factory lists. There was a real lull in the industry when it came to transparency. However, post-pandemic, there was a ‘build back better’ mindset. When the economy started to recover post-pandemic, sustainability was more at the forefront of citizens’ minds. Now, businesses that don’t embed transparency won’t survive in the long-term.

In an ideal world, what should transparency in the supply chains of the textile and garment industry entail?

Anyone, anywhere should be able to find out who, where and in what conditions your clothes were made from the final stage, all the way upstream to where the fibres were grown. It is the transparency of the warehouse/logistics worker, the garment worker, the spinning technician and the farmer. Transparency beyond merely who made the clothes - but how much they were paid. Complete visibility from beginning to end. At its most basic, transparency is a matter of honesty and an openness to scrutiny.

If we are thinking about clothing labels, ideal transparency includes:

  • Labour cost per product and the time needed to make the product (e.g. the time in minutes/hours to make the product at CMT unit level)
  • Fibre breakdown, source and certifications
  • Transparency on any hazardous chemicals present in the textile and chemicals used during the whole manufacturing process and the potential harmful impacts of each chemical used.

The most important plea is that when it comes to transparency in the fashion industry, transparency is not merely for transparency’s sake. The industry needs transparency of actionable data to enable citizens, civil society and affected stakeholders to hold the industry to account.

We have to move beyond factory lists - which can be seen as a key to help unlock further information. Disclosure cannot stop at the lists, we need visibility of annual production volumes, working conditions, wages, primary data on environmental management.

Importantly, this information should be disclosed in alignment with the Open Data Standard for the Apparel Sector - in an excel or csv format to enable machine readability. Even now, some brands are failing to disclose their supplier lists and some that do, are still doing so in PDF format, which is prohibitive to the standard we are pushing the industry toward.

We are looking for greater transparency on what brands are doing in terms of just transition, renewable energy advocacy, progress on and financing of decarbonisation. How are they supporting suppliers to transition to clean energy? How are they supporting mitigation and adaptation of the climate crisis?

We are asking for a lot but we feel the information we seek is crucial to unlock justice for the people who make our clothes and the environment. Ultimately, the planet is on the bargaining table. There is no sustainable fashion without fair pay and in the end, no fashion on a dead planet.

Also read:

This interview was conducted in written format.

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