My Ethical Fashion Journey: Delving Deeper
It's now two months since my first blog, and I promised to share my ongoing journey of delving into the traceability (or lack of) in the fashion supply chain of my clothes. I picked on a t-shirt from the American work-wear brand Carhartt – with the unhelpfully vague “made in Bangladesh” label.
So what have I done? I must confess my activity has been pretty much desk-based; relying on my not insignificant googling skills to see what I could find out about the t-shirt in question, and practices more generally.
Google has been a useful place to start – and has provided access to a range of advice, opinions and options. However rather like Alice & the rabbit hole, it's easy to get lost in a sea of information that is not always consistent or helpful. Here are a few things I have learnt:
1. Whilst it is easy to get to a high-level of information quickly, it then becomes almost impossible to get beneath the surface. In many instances brands use a lot of the right words, but when it comes to hard facts it's a matter of “take our word for it”
2. There are lots of resources out there to find out more about the source and supply chain of your clothing – in addition to the amazing Together Street, I also used Rank a Brand, Fashion Revolution, Fairtrade UK and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, many of which have their own brand benchmarking or ranking systems.
3. Definitions of "ethical" and “sustainable” vary enormously which creates wriggle room for brands to self-certify against the criteria that works for them. The conflation of ethical production conditions and environmentally sustainable is one of the most common, and I personally found it unhelpful. Both are important, but when combined, they fall into the easy category of “Corporate Social Responsibility”. Rather than being an integral part of a brand’s operation, it becomes part of the external comms story.
4. Many businesses just aren’t set up for this level of scrutiny – both Fashion Revolution and Rank a Brand provide a benchmark with clear criteria for scoring and a survey facility for brands to respond to. The level of detail required is extensive, and I can see why many brands will not yet be set up to respond. Surprisingly, luxury brands are often the worst offenders – despite the implied value and attention to detail involved in high end retailing, brands such as Chanel and LV scored poorly on both of the benchmark tools.
So where did this leave me with my t-shirt? Partly satisfied, partly unresolved. Carhartt are a good example of a brand recognising the increasing importance of ethical sustainability to its consumers, but not yet providing traceable information. Their site details their activity, and it's helpful in showing that Carhartt appreciate the importance of both environmental and social impact.. The code of conduct is particularly strong, outlining specific expectations alongside a recognition of how important this is to the brand, valuing partners who share their values.
However, when it comes down to the details, we find ourselves back in the “take our word for it” category, with the lack of specific information making it harder to believe they have a real handle on the end-to-end supply chain in a way that they would be confident to share. I don't get the impression they're being deliberately evasive of poor practice, but equally not confident enough of good practice to make an asset of it. It's interesting that they are very confident in sharing the details of their American operation – which, from reading between the lines, accounts for somewhere between 2-8% of their total production. It would be great to see this level of detail for the other 92%.
Overall, it's been an interesting journey with a very positive outcome for me – sustainability in fashion is a growing trend that has real momentum now. It is very easy to ask a few simple questions of our fashion choices – even if we're yet to have access to everything we would like to see, we should show brands that we care about the people and processes behind our clothes by asking questions in the first place. The resources are out there, and our buying decisions hold a great deal of power. You can let brands know that they need to improve transparency and traceability in their supply chains by joining in with this month's Together Street Challenge and asking brands: #whomademyclothes?