There’s a reason why brands and retailers tend to couch their social and environmental efforts in paragraphs of euphemism- and jargon-filled boilerplate, labor advocates say. For many apparel supply chains, opacity is a feature, not a flaw.
“Lack of transparency in the garment industry has enabled brands to distance themselves from workers and evade their responsibility to address low wages and exploitation in supply chains,” the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest alliance of labor unions and nonprofit organizations, said in a press release Wednesday. “Lack of transparency also impedes workers’ ability to organize and demand fair pay for their labor.”
In a recent survey of 108 brands conducted by the group, 93 percent of respondents failed to provide evidence they are paying a living wage to any of their suppliers. Roughly 63 percent did not disclose the names or addresses of their suppliers or only partially complied with the Transparency Pledge, a “minimum standard for supply chain disclosure” that the Clean Clothes Campaign helped spearhead in 2017.
To cut through the palaver, the Clean Clothes Campaign is launching a Fashion Checker website, with the goal of using data to impel brands and policymakers to implement living wages for all garment-industry workers by the end of 2022.
“Companies refuse to disclose information on their supply chain because that would mean associating themselves with the poverty wages that the workers who make their branded projects receive,” Muriel Treibich, lobby and advocacy coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement. “This lack of accountability needs to change and this is why we urgently need accurate and up-to-date data on factories and wages paid across the supply chain.”
The COVID-19 crisis, in particular, has accentuated the skewed power dynamics endemic to the garment industry, where buyers can wield their clout to squeeze already razor-thin margins and demand lower prices for goods. Since the outbreak, brands and retailers, frantic to protect their bottom lines from bottoming out, have exploited contract loopholes to unilaterally cancel orders, draw out payment terms and impose retroactive discounts on suppliers, leaving factories, which shell out for materials and labor upfront, in a financial hole and upstream workers facing almost-certain destitution.
The pandemic, the Clean Clothes Campaign said, has “shattered the carefully crafted illusions of sustainable and ethical fashion consumption” established by brands in recent years. As workers with little to no life savings are battered by factory closures and sweeping layoffs, the case for a living wage has “never been stronger.”
The Fashion Checker website, the campaign said, will increase transparency in the garment sector while pulling back the veil on the low wages, excessive overtime and exploitation that have become widely accepted as industry practice. Information published on the website will include details about workers’ wages, including the role gender and immigration status may play in their calculations. Low wages, the Clean Clothes Campaign adds, have severely hampered workers from fighting for better working conditions and wages, which maintains the status quo.
In addition to providing information to consumers and activists, the Clean Clothes Campaign is also publishing a list of demands for brands and policymakers, including a commitment to use “transparent and robust” living-wage benchmarks and the advancement of mandatory human-rights due diligence within supply chains.
While transparency within the industry is, as a whole, on the uptick, the organization is also urging brands and policymakers to publish more data and speed up their implementation of transparency in supply chains. There’s plenty of room for improvement: Only 40 percent of 200 brands surveyed in the Fashion Transparency Index this year publish a list of their first-tier manufacturers.
“Brands must stop hiding their supply chains,” said transparency lead Paul Roeland. “Their clothes are made by real people, in real locations. Consumers deserve to know where, and under what circumstances, clothes are produced.”