Transparency is trending in fashion.
Mass retailers like H&M, Zara, UK-based Marks & Spencer, Belgium-based CNA and Gap Inc., which owns Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta, have begun sharing the names of the factories they work with in an effort to improve working and environmental conditions, streamline cluttered supply chains, and get on the right side of the mindful consumer. This is a departure from traditionally standard retail practices, which saw companies keeping their factory names closely held in order to protect themselves from competition.
The timing is right: Corporate brands are looking to become more transparent during a moment of increasing customer consciousness. Transparency is, on some level, a feel-good buzzword for an industry plagued by environmental and ethical issues, as becoming more transparent doesn’t require as much internal overhaul as becoming more sustainable. And it’s not for nothing: When retailers identify what factories they work with, as well as what compliance guidelines they follow, it can help improve worker conditions and bring manufacturer malpractice to light.
“The supply chain is really complicated, but it’s a positive step from a global labor union perspective to be transparent,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, textile and garment director of global union IndustriALL, which has contracted agreements with H&M and Zara. “Customers appreciate it, as well. If you have nothing to hide, you can show it.”
But as big brands take steps to bring their supply chains out of the shadows, they haven’t trumpeted that message as loud-and-proud as one would expect. Gap Inc. announced its factory list in a bland investor relations announcement. H&M and Zara share some updates on the subject on their social media accounts, but they’re sporadic enough to get buried by product posts and lifestyle content.
— H&M (@hm) September 30, 2016
— ZARA (@ZARA) October 26, 2016
Compared to brands like direct-to-consumer retailer Everlane, these brands have kept transparency volume to a whisper. Everlane’s entire brand ethos is predicated around transparency: Its motto is “Radically Transparent,” and it hosts “Transparency Tuesdays” Q&As on Snapchat. In addition, it takes customers on video tours of new factories. The pricing structure for every product is laid out online, and interested customers can read about each of the 17 factories Everlane works with on its website.
Customers have clearly embraced this share-everything approach to retail. Everlane grew its revenue by 200 percent year-over-year in 2015, according to Bloomberg, and the brand does little marketing, accruing a customer-base mostly around mission-driven word of mouth.
But Everlane’s “radical transparency” is missing key specifics. Factory names aren’t disclosed, and the company adheres to a list of unspecified “compliance guidelines” when sourcing new factories. Meanwhile, Gap, Zara and H&M all have named factories and detailed compliance guidelines on their investor sites.
Founder and CEO Michael Preysman said in an email that the reason Everlane doesn’t disclose its factory names is that factory partners have asked them not to.
“Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.” He added that when factories allow, the names are shared. Such factories currently include Nobland in Vietnam and Mola in Los Angeles.
Preysman said that Everlane’s requirements for factory transparency include being able to document them, share what products are made there and complete audits on worker health, pay, safety and paperwork. However, in leaving some aspects—like their names—open-ended, Everlane’s practices are subject to interpretation.
“Not releasing factory names makes you less accountable if something happens,” said Natalie Grillon of Project Just, an online resource for customers wanting to find out how and where clothing from different brands is made. “They say it’s for competitive reasons, but in reality, a lot of these factories produce for multiple brands at a time. It’s more about protecting yourself.”
Customers of Everlane and other brands like American Giant and Reformation that built their brand messages on the back of transparency and conscious shopping appreciate the respite they offer from corporate facelessness. So as such corporations as Gap and Zara make transparency efforts, customers are repelled. A message of transparency from a fast fashion brand lacks the magic word: authenticity. When you’re H&M, firing off a tweet about sustainability efforts falls on highly skeptical ears.
“H&M comes under fire a lot for their initiatives because they do publicize it,” said Grillon. “When really, they’ve made a ton of effort in support of better wages. But then they talk about it a lot, and then they come under fire a lot for anything at all that goes wrong.”
Small brands looking to break the unsustainable retail system are the underdog, so customers are more willing to work through the problematic issues with them, said Grillon. For corporations, not so much. Grillon said Gap is hesitant to flaunt its transparency efforts because, unless they’re perfect (which, thanks to the messy state of retail’s supply chains, is impossible), they’ll receive backlash. It’s also hard to trust that bigger brands aren’t falling back on transparency in lieu of sustainability.
“Transparency is a means to an end,” said Bayard Winthrop, founder and CEO of American-made brand American Giant. “We believe it has to be part of our value system because the customer is going to find everything out. But being transparent isn’t the end goal.”
Without a believable value system in place, big retail is hard to pass off a message beyond anything other than profit.
“When you talk about ethical fashion, you’re talking about working toward better conditions, higher wages, fewer chemicals,” said Grillon. “That’s going to require raising prices, and that’s a hard pill to for brands to swallow.”