Fashion Revolution just launched its 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, which rated 250 brands that had a minimum turnover of $400 million. In the four previous years Fashion Revolution has released the indexes, it’s been more of the same: small progress from some brands, but so so painfully far to go for the majority of the brands on the list.
This year, while much of the report was no surprise — most brands are disclosing shockingly little about how their clothes were made — there was one plot twist: H&M rated #1 with a score of 73%. And the fast-fashion retailer was not just number one, but the highest-rated brand ever in Fashion Revolution’s five years of publishing transparency ratings.
This is surprising in of itself, but especially when you consider that Patagonia ranked 60% with the same scoring system. Patagonia sources from many Fair Trade Certified factories, which essentially means these factories have been verified that they’re paying fair wages and ensuring safe conditions by a third party. The brand also uses eco materials like Tencel, recycled cotton, ECONYL, and sources 100% organically-grown cotton. (Oh, and they transitioned to all organic cotton before it was trendy, too, back in 1996.) Patagonia also is one of the pioneering brands in the Regenerative Organic Certification pilot. Plus, they’ve put out campaigns to buy less but better and they have a repair program and used clothing/equipment program, called Worn Wear.
So, exactly how again did H&M rank #1? Is this a whole bunch of greenwashing?
Well, this post will attempt to make sense of what all of this data means — and what it doesn’t mean.
First, let’s start with what the results of this index don’t mean.
A high transparency score doesn’t translate into “sustainable” production and it doesn’t mean ethical production either.
As Noa from Style with a Smile pointed out, “transparency simply means providing information regarding actions, good or bad, and it is the first and highly crucial step to creating a change in the industry.”
The important note here to take away from this index is that brand can be transparent about irresponsible practices.
A brand can share the exact factories in which their garments were produced and the farms in which their fibers were sourced — but that doesn’t mean the conditions were ethical or that the sourcing methods were sustainable.
A brand can share all the wages across their supply chain — but that doesn’t mean those wages were actually fair or livable.
Transparency does not mean what a brand has to share is good, it means that the brand is sharing information at all.
As Fashion Revolution addressed the discrepancy, “Transparency does not equal sustainability. Our Fashion Transparency Index is not a shopping guide. It isn’t about which brand does the best, but about who discloses the most information. We will make this even clearer going forward. The Index measures brands’ openness and their willingness to be scrutinized. Brands may be disclosing a lot of information about their policies and practices but this doesn’t mean they are acting in a sustainable or ethical manner. We know that the pursuit of endless growth is in itself unsustainable.”
So, where do we go from here?
Well, transparency is the first step for brands. It’s essential for determining a baseline for accountability, creating a roadmap to improve, and then moving towards real, meaningful change.
That said, transparency is merely that first step on a long journey towards more responsible practices.
As Fashion Revolution continued in their post, “without transparency we cannot see or protect vulnerable people and the living planet. Public disclosure invites us in and allows citizens’ to exercise their right to find out more. Non-disclosure perpetuates a non-inclusive system.”
So, the takeaway here is that H&M shares a whole lot more information than the majority of big fashion brands, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they have more ethical or sustainable practices.
This is an essential distinction. Many consumers new to ethical and sustainable fashion may find terms like “transparency” confusing and misleading. In fact, H&M published a post on their Instagram feed (which has since been deleted) that they are “the most transparent brand in the world” and they proceeded to tag #WhoMadeMyClothes and… #Sustainability. (???)
Transparency, of course, does not equate to sustainability. But a consumer new to ethical and sustainable shopping may not understand this.
The other important note not to be missed here that helps explain how on earth a mega fast-fashion retailer churning out clothes at an obscenely rapid pace, ranked at the top is that the index only evaluates large fashion brands. (The minimum is $400 million in turnover!)
And most truly from-the-ground-up ethical and sustainable brands, are much much smaller. They are one-woman-shows or brands with a tight-knit group of 10 artisans. They are brands bootstrapping their operations and brands with founders that have developed a relationship with every customer that shops with their brand and every maker they work with.
These incredible, responsible brands will never make the index and it would simply not be feasible to rate and rank them all.
It was, of course, not Fashion Revolution’s intention to mislead consumers. They are an incredible organization paving the way for a more ethical fashion industry.
That said, I don’t think it’s a far stretch of the imagination to predict that there will continue to be a risk that fashion brands will use decent transparency scores to deceive consumers into thinking they are ethical or sustainable.
With this, I would propose that Fashion Revolution expands their future indexes to also include ratings on ethics and sustainability alongside transparency scores.
As more and more large brands throw around words like ‘conscious’, ‘natural’, ‘mindful’, and ‘slow’, without any proof in that pudding, we need cold hard data from big retailers and designers. And Fashion Revolution is well-positioned to do this.
Consumers are waking up to the rampant ethics and environmental issues in the fashion supply chain and more and more are looking to shop better — but they’re confused.
It’s challenging to make sense of all this information and as “conscious” and “eco-friendly” fashion becomes profitable, we need more clarity than ever before. Unfortunately, ‘transparency’ is a word too easy to greenwash and can be particularly misleading for those wanting to get into the conscious consumer space.
The reality is that we desperately need more comprehensive information about a company’s actual production practices in terms of ethics and sustainability (in addition to information about transparency).