Reflections On The Fashion Transparency Index 2021

Did you hear? Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index 2021 is out! While it might be a little over-enthusiastic to get excited for a report, the Transparency Index is a real highlight in the sustainable fashion calendar. Forget Vogue’s September Issue; this is a fashion activist’s equivalent!

This year, I’ve been eager to see how the fashion industry has adapted during the covid pandemic. Last year, many big brands stopped paying their suppliers, and it seemed that social sustainability within fashion was sliding backwards. So, are fashion brands still pursuing transparent supply chains, clearer communications, and cleaning up their act? I hope that’s what this report will uncover…

Why Is Transparency Important?

Do you like to be lied to? You don’t have to answer that – obviously, no-one does. However, lying is a huge issue in the fashion industry and it can lead to uninformed purchasing decisions by us consumers, as well as lax policies that do nothing to prevent the exploitation of people and planet. In the absence of transparency, opaque supply chains and unknown manufacturers make it easier for exploitation to occur. It also enables big brands to plead their innocence and refuse accountability on the basis of “not knowing any better”.

Fashion Revolution started on their quest after the Rana Plaza disaster, where a large fashion factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,500 more. The pressure to complete orders and keep up with fast fashion turnaround times meant that managers had sent workers into the building while knowing the building was unsafe. Retailers associated with the collapse include Benetton, Bonmarché, George at ASDA, Mango, Matalan, and Primark.

A more recent example is Carol Kane, CEO of Boohoo, pleading to not know that the fast fashion brand’s Leicester factories were paying staff less than minimum wage in 2020.

Why Look At The World’s 250 Biggest Brands?

Over six years of writing about sustainable fashion, I’ve barely featured big high street and fast fashion brands. So why is Fashion Revolution only looking at the world’s 250 biggest fashion brands? Surely if they wanted to highlight transparent brands, they’d go for the truly sustainable brands?

In the Transparency Index 2021, Fashion Revolution states:

“We focus on the biggest and most profitable brands and retailers because they have the biggest negative impacts on workers and the environment and therefore the greatest responsibility to change.”

This is a perfect summation of why transparency is important, and why Fashion Revolution is actively digging through muddy supply chains to encourage change. These big brands are often far, far behind what we consider transparent and sustainable.

In addition, I want to add that I don’t think this ranking is something brands should be proud of. They are the world’s biggest and most profitable brands and retailers, which in itself is an issue in terms of sustainability. After the 2020 iteration of this index came out, H&M called themselves the “world’s most transparent brand” and had to be shouted down by fashion brands and activists alike. This year, the index goes further to communicate that it is a representation of traceability across brands’ supply chains, and even provided communication guidelines that would help prevent greenwashing.

23%: The Average Score In The Transparency Index 2021

Despite OVS topping the report with a score of 78%, it turns out that the average transparency score for the world’s biggest fashion brands was just 23%. If we apply this to our wardrobes, it equates to 3 in 4 items having been made without any supply chain transparency or public disclosure. It’s simply not good enough.

Dragging the average down was 20 brands that received a 0% rating. Across these are brands ranging from ultra fast fashion through to luxury fashion, showing that a higher price tag doesn’t necessarily reflect better ethics.

The 20 Brands That Scored 0% On The Transparency Index 2021

  • Belle
  • Big Bazaar – ffb
  • Billabong
  • celio
  • Elie Tahari
  • Fashion Nova
  • Heilan Home
  • Jessica Simpson
  • KOOVS
  • Max Mara
  • Metersbonwe
  • Mexx
  • New Yorker
  • Pepe Jeans
  • Quiksilver
  • Roxy
  • Semir
  • Tom Ford
  • Tory Burch
  • Youngor

Transparency Is Shallow At Best

Fashion Supply Chain Infographic created by Fashion Revolution

Fashion Revolution has achieved a lot since starting its call for transparency in 2014. It notes that nearly half of the major brands in this Transparency Index 2021 now publish a list of manufacturers, however these are usually “first-tier manufacturers” only. This is where the final stage of production occurs, e.g. cutting, sewing, finishing products and packing them for shipment.

While this is great to see, true transparency goes further. “Production facilities beyond the first-tier of manufacturing” are the next step. Currently just over 1 in 4 brands (27%) disclose the wet processing facilities and spinning mills deeper in their supply chains. The accompanying infographic shows just how many stages there are in fashion supply chains, and yet we only really hear about retail and the cutting/sewing/finishing stages.

Brands Still Hide Sustainability Efforts

The Fashion Revolution team had a mammoth task in producing the Transparency Index 2021, as well as all the previous iterations. Yet the task continues to be made even more difficult by the way big brands are communicating their human rights and environmental efforts, noted as “overwhelming, impenetrable, repetitive and difficult to find”.

As someone who has made it their hobby to look for this information, I have to agree. Both Fashion Revolution and I have noted that brands “make it virtually impossible for their customers and stakeholders to decipher information“, burying information “dozens of clicks away from the homepage of brands’ websites”.

However, while I usually assume this is done to dissuade shoppers from looking for this information, instead pushing them to buy, this might not always be the case. Fashion Revolution notes that “even for some of the higher scoring brands in this Index, it takes our experienced researchers many days and countless hours to read through all their communications to uncover what’s relevant and actionable.”

It seems that both poor presentation of sustainability efforts, and malicious hiding of these (often lacking) efforts, are both factors. On top of that, we all have to wade through “nice sounding copy about brands’ values” to find actual reported impacts. These issues may be a possible reason as to why “a mere 18% of consumers would trust sustainability information provided directly by brands themselves“, as reported by Changing Markets Foundation.

I hope that brands take note of this – presentation of sustainability efforts needs to be clear and easy to access, for researchers and consumers alike. Hopefully this will also lead to a “standardisation of credible, comparable disclosure of human rights and environmental impacts by major brands and retailers” in the future.

Covid-19 Cost Workers A Lot…

Last year many of the world’s biggest fashion brands cancelled orders with their manufacturers. Instead of the big brands and their shareholders bearing the brunt of the pandemic, it fell onto the shoulders of the workers in their supply chains – potentially illegally. Workers lost wages, lost jobs, and “many faced increasing food insecurity, hunger, stress and fatigue.”

When it comes to transparency, the Index highlights how brands reverted back to feigned ignorance and a lack of transparency around how they handled order cancellations, and further, the exploitation of their workers. “Just 18% of brands disclose data about their order cancellations in the past year” notes the report. However, according to an October 2020 report by the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights, 75% of suppliers reported that they have had to cut workers’ hours as a result of buyer purchasing practices during the pandemic. And on top of that, Fashion Revolution found that 97% of brands did not publish the percentage of workers that have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. That’s a big blind spot.

…Yet The Pandemic Boosted Profits For Brands

While the pandemic made many brands go into panic mode, it turns out that shopping from home continued to grow many brands’ profits. Remake found that the following fashion brands made a profit in the third quarter of 2020:

  • Adidas
  • Amazon
  • Athleta
  • Banana Republic
  • GAP
  • H&M
  • Levi’s
  • Lululemon
  • Nike
  • Old Navy
  • Primark
  • Under Armour
  • Uniqlo
  • Zara

…Yet many of these brands were the same ones that cancelled orders, and required public pressure through the #PayUpFashion campaign to recommit to paying their manufacturers.

And despite government-backed efforts to ‘build back better’, the Index also notes that fashion brands are not taking the restart after the pandemic as an opportunity to implement policies and commitments around issues such as “social auditing, living wages for supply chain workers, purchasing practices, unionisation, gender and racial equity, production and waste volumes, circularity, chemical use, deforestation and carbon emissions in the supply chain”.

It appears that the pandemic has given many brands an excuse for backsliding, even when they continue to perform financially…

Black Squares Need To Be Acted Upon

2020 saw many fashion brands engaging in the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate campaigns. But were their black squares and diversified feeds on social media just performative action? According to the Transparency Index 2021, yes:

  • Only 12% of brands publish their actions on the promotion of racial equality in their operations
  • Just 16% of major brands disclose the breakdown of job roles by ethnicity in their own operations
  • Only 2% publish ethnicity pay gap data within their supply chains.

Gender equality, on the other hand, is much more readily reported. Fashion Revolution notes that policy, such as the UK’s law mandating the disclosure of gender pay gaps by all companies with 250+ employees, supports this. Evidently, something similar for racial equality is needed. And for starters, a reversal of France and Germany’s policies that prohibit the collection of ethnicity data.

Policy Is Getting Tighter – In Some Regions

Speaking of policy, we have something to look forward to! Towards the end of 2021, the European Commission is also expected to propose a new Sustainable Product Policy Framework setting out standards on the durability, reusability, repairability, recyclability and energy efficiency of textiles. (This framework is part of the European Green Deal, which I outlined in my guide to green policies earlier this year.)

The Index notes that this framework will see “companies being required to proactively assess, act and report on human rights and environmental risks throughout their supply chains.

However, it’s important to remember that policy like this is needed all over the world. “We need legislation that prevents human rights and environmental abuses as well as requires companies to monitor and report the implementation and outcomes of their efforts to do so. And on top of that: “When brands fail, there should be meaningful sanctions and reparations for harms done.

Fashion Is Fuelling The Climate Crisis

Finally, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: the fashion industry is fuelling the climate crisis. Forget organic cotton t-shirts, the impact of the industry covers resource use, energy use, water use, and more.

According to the Index, most brands (79%) are reporting their energy and greenhouse gas emissions cutting policies, but fewer (58%) disclose supplier policies addressing this, and even less (30%) provide a time-bound commitment for decarbonisation.

The second part – supplier policies on cutting emissions – is quite troubling to me, as this is where “up to 80% of the fashion sector’s emissions occur“. It’s like saying Zara’s HQ turns the lights off at night, but its hundreds of suppliers leave them blazing all night long. It seems misleading and again, like brands see themselves as unaccountable for their suppliers’ impacts on the environment.

Brands are also not promising one big thing that could alleviate fashion’s environmental impact hugely: producing less clothing. The Index notes that “more than a hundred billion pieces of clothing made each yearyet major brands and retailers aren’t doing enough to address this problem.

Instead of switching materials, suppliers, practices, policies… why not simply make less stuff? We all know why though: money.

Transparency Index 2021: A Tool For Activism

Fashion Revolution has rounded off their report by inviting readers to use the Index to “inform you activism”, not your shopping choices.

The 250 big brands listed in the report all have major issues still. None are treating people and planet in a fair way. None are even wholly transparent about how they treat people and planet.

Despite the champagne glasses I’ve shot to accompany my thoughts about the Index’s findings, there’s not much to celebrate in the way of the fashion industry cleaning up its act. Instead, I wanted to capture the way the light is concentrated through the glass, just like Fashion Revolution has done in scrutinising the way brands are succeeding in some areas, and failing in others. Let’s keep that spotlight shining on them…


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