The 20th – 26th of April was Fashion Revolution Week. Normally this means I would have been busy writing a post rounding up a few things that happened during the week, and figuring out how the industry has changed as a consequence one month on. This year we’re taking a slightly different tact.
On the 20th of April, Fashion Revolution released its annual Transparency Index; a document – now in its fifth edition – that rates and ranks 250 of the world’s biggest fashion companies “according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts” (Fashion Revolution, Fashion Transparency Index 2020). The general aim of the index is to push big brands who have global supply chains to be more open about how their clothes are made and where they come from, often highlighting the shameful lack of information that some of the most well-known household names provide about their production (54% of this year’s cohort scored 20 points or less out of a possible 100, with 28% of those scoring under 10).
Because of the generally critical nature of the index’s results, the brands involved often shy away from promoting the index or their association with it in order to keep customers blissfully unaware of its existence. This year is a different story.
H&M scored 73 out of 100 on this year’s index, making them the highest-scoring brand both of this year and of all time. They did not shy away from gloating about this title by posting on Instagram:
“Great!” You might think. “Finally I can shop at H&M guilt-free because the brand has made a miraculous turnaround in the last year and are now one of the global leaders in transparency!” This is exactly how the H&M head honchos want you to think, but there are some clear and fundamental flaws that this simplistic attitude overlooks.
If we begin to look at H&M’s score objectively, 73 is still not even three-quarters of the way to Fashion Revolution’s ideal “full transparency”. If we’re looking for brands that are actually doing positive work, we need to be seeing scores at least in the 90s, if not already at a perfect 100. In theory, those would be brands that disclose the name and location of every single production facility, from crop farm to finishing factory, with a guarantee that every person involved in that supply chain had been involved or at least been available to be audited during the investigation. Every used material, no matter how small the percentage, would be accounted for and publicly listed, including chemicals used in dyed or distressed garments. Every delivery would be traceable, every factory would be accountable and we would be at the point of almost being able to ring each of the workers to check that they’re happy making the clothes.
The second thing we have to look at is Fashion Revolution’s definition of what the Transparency Index implies:
“The Index is a tool to incentivise and push major brands to be more transparent, and encourage them to disclose more information about their policies, practices and supply chain. Transparency isn’t about which brand does the best, but about who discloses the most information. Transparency does not equal sustainability. 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. However, without transparency we cannot see or protect vulnerable people and the living planet.” (Fashion Revolution, Transparency)
The index’s purpose is not to crown a yearly ‘Transparency Winner’. It’s not even meant to highlight brands who do good things because the reality is that every company on that list is more or less actively contributing to all of the issues involved in the modern fast fashion chain. It’s unlikely that there are brands involved in this list that are actually making a net positive impact on the industry or the environment because one of the qualifying features of the 250 largest fashion corporations in the world is that they’re all, in one way or another, involved in over-producing masses of clothing in order to drive profits
But the transparency index can be used and abused by these companies as a tool for greenwashing.
You give a company the ability to say it’s better than all of its competitors at anything and of course the marketing department is going to jump on it and turn it into propaganda.
In the case of H&M, their Instagram post claimed the brand to have been voted ‘the world’s most transparent brand’ by Fashion Revolution. The post was up for maybe a total of 36 hours, in which time Fashion Revolution had publicly replied, pointing out that H&M were ‘intentionally misleading’ followers by claiming a title that the Transparency Index (and Fashion Revolution as an organisation) does not endorse.
But the damage was already done. A quick skim of the comments section revealed hundreds of followers saying things along the lines of ‘this is exactly why I shop at H&M’ and ‘H&M doing great things for the fashion industry’. There were a fair share of critics who pointed out that the Index was not meant to be used in such a way, but in the grand scheme of H&M’s 35.2 million Instagram followers, these are easily overlooked.
This points to a wider issue with greenwashing. Fashion Revolution meant well when they first created the Transparency Index, and in the past it has done some great work to encourage these 250 brands to get where they are today. But the question has to be asked:
If half of the brands involved are still scoring under 20, and the brand with the highest score is able to use that fact to greenwash its social media following into thinking it’s an example of a sustainable fashion company, is it time for a more up-to-date way of criticising fast-fashion perpetrators?
Brands are becoming more and more sophisticated in their greenwashing efforts. And maybe that’s because the people behind the brands believe that they are truly making a difference to the industry. But with H&M still churning out around 550 million garments a year – most of which will cost you less than £20 – we’re still going to see tons and tons of clothing end up on landfill, and myriad cases of workers not being paid a living wage to make these garments. It’s not sustainable. To suggest that it could ever be sustainable is to wilfully delude yourself.
We need a new, (and ironically) more transparent way of talking about brands. We can’t consider just their transparency efforts, or just their effort towards paying workers. We have to be approaching it from a holistic perspective where each of the aspects of a fashion brand is taken into account in order to form a whole judgement, including environmental welfare, animal welfare, human welfare as well as workers’ rights. If the company in question misses any of the marks then they’re held accountable for their actions, and unable to use the fact that they made one small change to their process to greenwash their customers.
The transparency index’s results do have a positive outcome – brands like H&M have visibly come a long way in the last decade towards discovering the issues that rest within their production processes and supply chains. But this cannot be the end. Now that they’re aware of what’s going on, it’s time to make some real change to the way they operate and work towards improving the fashion industry for us all.