Transparency's the New Black

As published in The Australian, Wednesday 26 April 2017

Sometimes it takes a tragedy of monumental proportions to fuel change. The Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, was one such tragedy. The collapse of the shoddy building killed more than 1100 people involved in the manufacturing of fast fashion; twice that many were injured.

The scale of the tragedy was such that the world could no longer turn a blind eye to the people who make our clothes, often in substandard conditions in some of the poorest countries. And many are paid below what is considered a living wage in their respective countries, meaning they are unable to lift themselves and their families out of the poverty cycle.

The Fashion Revolution movement and organisation was set up in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, with more than 80 countries involved in its message of ethical fashion production, and this week marks Fashion Revolution Week. The overriding message is to urge consumers to ask a simple question of the brands they wear: Who made my clothes?

Transparency has become a buzzword in the fashion industry, with a call to brands to publish details about their supply chains.

“We’ve seen more businesses publish their supplier factory list than ever before,” says Melinda Tually, co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution Australia. “Over 90 brands around the world. It’s a real­ly big achievement.

“Marks & Spencer have an interactive map where you can trace their factories. Reformation in the US have been doing videos of factory workers in LA. More of these high-profile brands are starting to share stories from their supply chain. Patagonia has got some great stuff happening using Fair Trade-certified factories (in the US and Sri Lanka).”

In Australia, an increasing number of brands have made a concerted effort to produce their clothing ethically, whether in Australia or overseas. Some began their journey this way, others have changed tack to improve the lives of workers they engage with.

Alison Cotton is the force behind First Base, a sports lifestyle brand that launched 3½ years ago out of Bondi Beach in Sydney. Two years ago she switched to the ethical and sustainable route.

“It’s something we’re genuinely passionate about,” Cotton tells Life. “We’re trying to make ethically because we give a shit. We’ve just published our factory list on our website.

“Even for us as a small business, it is a commercial issue, yes, but we’re really committed to what Fashion Revolution are doing. We want to take down more barriers to hopefully get more people involved … and give customers the assurance that what we’re saying is what we’re doing. We’ve done our research, put money and time into it to be ethically produced. Now we’re putting it out there.”

Social media has helped brands connect more directly with consumers, including with regards to transparency. Cotton and her production manager are in China again this week, “and we’ll be doing Insta stories (on Instagram) to give visibility around who we’re working with”.

Cotton says the decision to go down this route after launching the label has meant cutting out some product lines. “When we’ve hit a roadblock with certain product types, then we move away. It’s as simple as that until there’s a better solution.”

Certain things are simply non-negotiable for Cotton, and are the key to what Fashion Revolution is highlighting. “What resonates with most people are the key points of what it means (for a factory) to be certified — it has safe working conditions, all OH&S requirements, fire exits and a clean environment, those super basic things. The other key thing obviously is (that workers receive) a living wage. And also there are fair working hours and no child or slave labour. They’re the big ones that people really care about, the real core of what matters. The factories we use are the highest level we can get. Other points are varying, like no discrimination or harassment of workers.”

Good Day Girl assumed its ethical standpoint from day one. Co-founders Alexia Gnecchi Ruscone and Sophie Toohey set out to create a made-to-order label that was the antithesis of fast fashion — something considered and desired that wasn’t going to be thrown out after one season (or one wear) and that supported local manufacturers and artisan makers in Sydney.

“I think the transparency issue is something that’s very new in our industry because it has always been quite closed-door,” says Ruscone. “And with it comes responsibility.

“It’s very much the core of our business. When we started (in 2013), we decided we were absolutely slow fashion. Our way of explaining the made-to-order system to customers was explaining the slow food movement — who produces the food that you eat, who grows it, where is it grown? Through that analogy we talk to our customers about who makes our clothes. We deal with all our manufacturers directly, we don’t outsource anything. When in production mode we’re in the factory three to four times a week. We know the people who sew for us and … we see the environment they work in.”

The poster girl for ethical and sustainable fashion is Kit Willow Podgornik, whose KitX label is the high-fashion embodiment of this world. Her “win-win philosophy” is finding success in the label’s first 18 months of trading, and it is now stocked in 60 stores globally. Her approach has been a stealthy one: create desirable fashion, then people will find out about the stories behind it.

“I’ve always said don’t push it on to the consumers,” Podgornik says. “It’s about pushing awareness on to designers and brands, and then creating beautiful storytelling around it.”

One such story for Podgornik comes from working with the Loom to Luxury project, a collective of silk weavers in Varanasi, India. “These artisans are trained over years, but they’re losing the next generation to jobs in telecommunications or hospitality. Nest (a New York-based not-for-profit) is identifying key artisan groups such as this around the world and then putting infrastructure around them — whether that’s childcare or just rubbish removal from the factories — so it becomes enticing enough for the next generation to stay in the industry.”

Jewellery has similar, as well as specific, supply chain issues as fashion. Julia Denes started Woodfolk Natural Accessories, which creates jewellery and other accessories using only ethically sourced wood, ceramic, cotton, linen and wool rather than metals and gems, because “only a truly Fair Trade system would ban diamonds or gemstones being mined in conflict areas, and areas with unfair labour practices and human rights abuses”.

Denes works with artisans in Patan, in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, and believes consumers have been kept in the dark about supply chains for too long.

“Transparency lifts the veil on a brand’s practices and allows consumers to factor in their behaviour as a global citizen into the purchasing decision,” says Denes.

“I believe the rise of ethical fashion and Fashion Revolution is a real shake-up of the industry and I am proud to be a part of it. The more businesses make change and show transparency, the likelihood others will follow suit. It’s not going to happen overnight but there might be a time when this is a non-negotiable and future generations will be thankful.”

Transparency is the New Black, article in The Australian here