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Consumers Want More Transparency—But Will They Pay for It?

When it comes to transparency in the supply chain, brands shouldn’t try to eat the whole elephant in one bite—but they do need to pick up a fork.

As part of a webinar announcing the findings of its 2019 Transparency Study, Sourcing Journal’s founder and president Edward Hertzman sat down with a trio of industry thought leaders to provide context behind the challenges facing the apparel and textile industry.

And as brands, factories and retailers increasingly settle in for what could be a long meal, all would be wise to first settle on the notion of what “transparency” looks like to them.

Natalie Grillon, project director at Open Apparel Registry, an open source map and database of global apparel facilities, warned that organizations are defining transparency in different ways, and until sentiments are distinguished, the industry runs the risk of diluting the term.

Beyond definitions, the expectations for transparency—and the reasoning behind them—differ as well. As shared during the webinar, a separate study conducted by Cotton Incorporated found that consumers in China and Mexico were more concerned about the environmental impact of manufacturing a product than consumers in the United States. While the data didn’t delve into the reasoning behind the levels of concern, the group theorized that U.S. consumers may be less concerned because the country hasn’t been a textile manufacturing hub in decades—they’re simply less aware of what’s at stake.

Garry Bell, VP of corporate marketing and communications at Gildan Activewear, echoed this, noting that the average American listening to the webinar likely couldn’t remember a time when textiles and apparel were made in the U.S., and it’s that proximity to one’s home that affects perspective. “Globalization has made the apparel industry overly complex. … Except for a few brands, it’s very difficult for consumers to have an appreciation of how complex the supply chain is. [U.S. consumers] don’t see the textile factories in their backyard, but those in China and Mexico do,” said Bell.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while consumers may say transparency is important to them, this priority isn’t always translating to the cash register—at least not directly.

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“In general, if we just look at all the research together—and we look at this study in particular—the environment and the idea of sustainability and transparency [are] very important to consumers,” said Melissa Bastos, Cotton Incorporated’s director of market research. “But when we go back and put that in the context of shopping and the shopping journey, and try to figure out where sustainability is in terms of their priorities, that’s not necessarily the case.”

While consumers do want to know that what they’re buying isn’t harming the environment, sustainability tends to be lower on the list of individual purchase drivers.

“Consumers buy what they buy because they want to look good,” she said. “They want to be comfortable [and] because it fits. And, more importantly, it fits their price point.”

However, Bastos caveated this with the point that corporate transparency efforts can pay dividends in consumer trust, which Bell described as “a lever into a lot of catalysts to drive positive change.”

As for who’s responsible for first picking up that forkful of pachyderm, the panel generally agreed it makes the most sense for brands and retailers to take the lead. And while there are hurdles to overcome, the benefits of effectively sharing data and best practices are accelerating thanks to new technology and increasing industry willingness.

Watch the webinar here. And read Sourcing Journal’s 2019 Transparency Study here.