This week journalist Katie Hope published an article on the BBC News website entitled, 'Has this dress been to more countries than you?’
The article itself was about a Zara Shirtdress that turned out to have component parts which had travelled between five different countries before ultimately being shipped to their final destination. That’s a lot of air miles. The label read ‘Made in Morocco’ despite only being assembled there and made no mention of the origin of its materials.
You might imagine this type of consumption as typical of the leaders in fast fashion but actually Zara, owned by Inditex, was the only one of five companies asked by Katie to submit the lifecycle of their garment who actually replied, and with complete transparency. Why?
"I imagine companies don't want to respond because they have no clue where the materials they buy come from," says Tim Hunt, a researcher at Ethical Consumer, which researches the social, ethical and environmental behaviour of firms. Worryingly, I think he’s probably right.
The real issue is that there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding and knowledge around the supply chain from retailers and consumers alike. The team at Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation and global movement to increase transparency within retail, put it like this:
It might seem unbelievable but when you consider the scale of many of the businesses we’re talking about it begins to make sense. Materials can often only be cultivated in certain climates, then they have to travel to where they’re treated or woven and then after that to where they’re made. And finally to where they’re finished. These are all different skillsets and many businesses will sub-contract work to manage volume. You see how it’s become a little difficult to track; but it’s not impossible, and that’s the point.
Out of everything you have in your wardrobe right now, this minute, how many pieces do you know the provenance of? If we don’t know where our garments are being made, we can’t ensure that environmental and humanitarian standards are being met and we can’t expect you, the consumer, to value genuine product.
The latest Behind the Barcode* report found that out of 87 of the biggest fashion brands less than half publicly state which countries they source from, only 16% publish a full list of the factories where their clothes are sewn, and less than a fifth of brands know where all of their zippers, buttons, thread and fabric come from.
Undoubtedly it was the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse on April 14th 2013 that forced this issue into the public realm. In fact many large companies said of the collapse, that they didn’t even know their garments were being made there. It left 1,133 men, women and children dead, over 2500 injured and at least 800 children orphaned.
That's not acceptable.
If we’re going to value and respect the planet and the people in it we need to make changes. We need to become more educated in the reality behind what we buy and what exactly we’re funding when we do so.
Happily many large businesses have started to respond to the call for more transparency within their supply chains with M&S even releasing an interactive map detailing the locations of all their suppliers and factories. This means that there’s much more chance of large corporations making regular visits to their partners, ensuring they’re safe places to work and that the employees are working for no less than minimum wage. It also means that malpractice can soon be found out. At the heart of manufacturing many producers are working for a multitude of retailers, not just one. Increased pressure from customers along with diligence from the biggest of retailers will make a huge difference to this global issue.
For us (the small brands) not only is it a little simpler to talk about the origin of our pieces but it seems that very often we have these values of transparency at our core as it is. In contemporary retail, concerns about wastage and sustainability, about integrity and ethical standards are the building blocks to everything we do.
As a business owner I spend a lot of time focussing on how to reduce our costs and therefore the price you pay for the final goods. I could use cheaper leather, cheaper labour and fly our bags halfway across the world to get to you but I don’t. And I won’t; it’s not really the point.
And that’s where the value is.
Knowing that your bag isn’t just a sum of nondescript parts, it contains pieces which have all had a life of their own in which they’ve been loved, cared for and crafted with precision. It’s a point I’m really passionate about and one which started my journey into leather in the first place. So of course transparency is trending, and I think it’s here to stay.
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