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Kingpins Transformers Make a Case for Greater Transparency in Denim

Though it may still be unclear just how much information consumers need about their jeans, what is clear is that they’re keen on transparency—and leaders from the global supply chain speaking at Kingpins Transformers in Amsterdam Tuesday, are working on best practices for delivering it.

The one-day conference, sponsored by Rivet, examined how companies define and create transparency, how much information is too much, and what the best channels are to reach the end user. Panelists and attendees also considered where transparency ranked on consumers’ list of priorities.

Stefano Aldighieri, Arvind creative director and an attendee at the event, said if the industry is waiting for the end user to ask for more information about the products they buy, it may be waiting for a long time.

Consumers may want a garment that’s ethical and sustainable, but when they get to the store, price is top of mind. Manufacturers, he said, will have to set the standard if they want consumers to follow.

“Eventually people will decide that’s what they want because basically they will have no choice. Whatever they buy is going to be more sustainable and [greener] whether they like it or not,” Aldighieri said. “Nobody goes to the store saying, ‘I want to buy the most polluting thing in the store today,’ much like they don’t’ say they want to buy the greenest thing in the store. People will buy whatever is available to them,” he said.

The evolution of transparency

Transparency has certainly evolved with the years, and it’s something Lenzing has taken note of since introducing its first sustainability report in 2013.

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The concept wasn’t really part of the storyline three decades ago. In the 1980s, it was all about compliance, according to Tricia Carey, Lenzing director global business for denim. The 1990s brought greater concern about shareholders and the 2000s became a decade of greenwashing. “We would talk about transparency only when it was something good we could talk about,” she said.

It wasn’t until around 2010 when sustainability efforts ramped up and transparency came into clearer focus. “Wherever sustainability goes, transparency follows,” Carey said.

Today, the cellulosic fiber manufacturer has information about the species of trees it uses and the region they come from, plus water and energy usage in all of its plants, and a process for fiber identification so it can provide brands certification for its branded fibers. To translate some of that information to the consumer level, Lenzing counts on a five-person sustainability team to provide answers to brands’ questions and its online platform, Carved in Blue, to share the information with the end user.

“Gen Z and millennials get their information from Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube. And those forms of media become very important for storytelling. So, we see that connection between transparency and storytelling happening,” Carey said. “We look to promote sustainability through everything we do. It’s the core our business.”

Everything but the secret sauce

If you ask ZDHC Foundation implementation director Dr. Christina Raab, transparency is evolving but it’s still a challenge further down the supply chain and at large scale. Most of what companies do these days is still rooted in what’s legally required.

A new transparent framework for consumer information should be built on safer chemistry and take the entire supply chain’s sustainability performance into account, according to Raab. And it should be both easy to understand and to use.

While the supply chain may gripe about how consumers only care about style and price, Miguel Sanchez, Archroma global head business development denim and casual wear, pointed out that it’s the only information readily available in stores.

“The end consumer doesn’t know what else is important. For as long as the garment in the shop are just the garment and price, there is very little push to change that,” Sanchez said. “We have to make sustainability something as important as the other two parameters.”

Companies throughout the supply chain are bogged down by non-disclosure agreements, precluding many from seeking and sharing best practices. However, Alberto Candiani, co-owner and global manager of Candiani Denim, said some secrets are worth keeping.

“Transparency can be used to obtain know-how details. And to disclose certain company secrets which might be very important to preserve if we want to keep competitive advantage,” he said. “I don’t need to disclose who my customers are. I don’t think I should do that. I think I should protect my customer,” he said, adding that he invoices the fabrics to the garment makers, not to the brands themselves.

Transparency—the experience

Though some manufacturers may not be on board, others err on the more positive side of what transparency can bring.

“There is hope around transparency,” Buxton Midyette, Supima vice president of marketing and promotions, said. Supima has always invited brands to its harvest each year to see firsthand how 500 family farms make the sustainable, high quality cotton, but the invites went begging 12 to 15 years ago. “And then funny things started to happen around five years ago,” he said. “People started saying yes and they started coming.”

Along with Brooks Brothers, Land’s End and Banana Republic, “radical transparency” brand Everlane recently visited Supima’s harvest and brought its social media team out to share the experience on Instagram. “They’re really taking that story to the consumer,” Midyette said.

Bringing partners to the source has been an option many companies have turned to for driving transparency.

Lenzing has been known for inviting partners to its Austrian headquarters to experience its process, and likewise, Italian denim mill Candiani wants the industry to experience the “greenest mill in the blue” world for themselves.

The mill will hold its first open mill day in October 2018 for the industry. “It’s for anybody who is interested, anybody who wants to see hands on what we do,” Candiani said.

One big idea

As with previous Kingpins Transformers, the session concluded with a call for collaboration and shared knowledge.

Collaboration is key for progress, Ben Tomkins, Oritain business development manager, said.

“It’s quite easy for people to sit here and pitch their own ideas, own technologies, own applications, but unless you’re actually joining them to find the best solutions, I don’t feel it working,” he said.

A common set of guidelines would help cut costs, streamline certifications and provide consumers a base line to compare products. However, ZDHC’s Raab pointed out that on the brand and retailer side, even though they might commit to a certain standard, many will still have diverging and competing programs.

But there’s a belief that creating a common set of guidelines can be done.

Supima’s Midyette said home textile factories can have as many as half a dozen inspectors in the plant every day for every single retailer with competing standards of quality. To curb that inspection fatigue, the International Textile Manufacturers Association is working to combine social compliance in inspections for the top 10 to 15 sheet and towel manufacturers in the world.

While it’s slow and difficult work, Midyette said, it is an initiative that denim could learn from.