The fashion supply chain is a convoluted, opaque mess. But H&M is working to shine a light on where its clothes are made—and by whom.
“We believe that transparency is a way of doing business and it’s a tool that drives positive change towards a more sustainable fashion future,” said Pascal Brun, head of sustainability for the Swedish retailer. “We have been committed to increasing our level of transparency for many years.”
In 2013, H&M made public for the first time the names and addresses of nearly 800 of its cut-and-sew and processing suppliers across Asia, Africa and Europe, a hitherto uncommon move for any brand, let alone one of its size and scale. Last April, H&M took the concept further, attaching consumer-facing “transparency layers” to all garments and most H&M Home interior products sold on hm.com.
Customers who click on “product background” on any item page are able to pull up not only the country where the coat, dress or T-shirt was manufactured but also the name of the factory, its physical address and the number of workers it employs. The same tab offers additional information about the materials used and how to recycle the garment when it’s no longer wanted.
“By being open and transparent about where our products are made we hope to set the bar for our industry and empower customers to make more sustainable choices,” Brun said.
Transparency alone, labor-rights advocates say, does not automatically result in improved working conditions, higher wages or greater accountability, but it’s a necessary vantage point from which to effectively campaign for these other goals. H&M is a signatory of the Transparency Pledge, a “minimum standard” for supply-chain disclosures that asks companies to publish “standardized, meaningful information” on all factories in the manufacturing phase of their supply chains.
The 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, published in April by grassroots group Fashion Revolution, gave H&M its highest score of 73 percent based on social and environmental metrics such as animal welfare, biodiversity, chemicals, climate, due diligence, supplier disclosure and working conditions.
H&M plans to uncover more of its operations beyond its first tier, including mapping all of its viscose and manmade cellulosic fiber suppliers by the end of 2020 and publishing 100 percent of its fabric dyeing and printing partners by 2021. For certain materials, like organic cotton, it works with third-party certifiers and standards organizations to split the load, but the work is never completely finished, Brun said, because the supply chain is constantly shifting, which means that one-time mapping is not enough.
“Thanks to our local presence in our production countries, we have been able to build long-term relationships with our suppliers based on trust and transparency,” he said. “It has also given us the possibility to engage with local trade unions, NGOs and civil society groups to ensure that we understand the local perspective in each country. But in a complex supply chain like ours, there is still a need for joint industry solutions, third-party certification systems and trustworthy supply-chain data.”
Looking ahead, Brun says H&M wants to share even more information with its customers, including environmental performance data on the product level. The retailer has teamed up with Higg Co, a spinoff of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition that manages the Higg Index suite of sustainability assessment tools, to test and launch something to that effect “in the near future.”
“We have always understood transparency to be a tool for positive change and that increasing our level of transparency will be an ongoing part of our journey towards a more sustainable fashion industry,” Brun said. “At the same time, we know that customer expectations are increasing and transparency helps us to raise our customers awareness, empower them to make more informed choices and build trust.”
What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?
“The need for the industry to take responsibility for its future together. We all face the same challenges: we live on a planet with limited resources, threatened by a climate crisis, waste pollution, inequalities in many parts of the world, etc. Being a global fashion retailer, we have a big responsibility and we will continue using our size and scale to take the lead on these critical issues. However, no single company can solve these industry-wide challenges on its own and we need to see even more collaboration.”
For more on Sustaining Voices, which celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action, visit sustainingvoices.com.