The good news: Fashion brands and retailers, needled by growing calls for greater transparency, are increasingly opening up their supply chains to public scrutiny. The bad? Few are disclosing or even mapping their suppliers beyond the first tier of finished-goods manufacturers, which does little to allay the human-rights abuses lurking in the lower reaches of the pipeline.
Take, for instance, the textile-producing hub of Tamil Nadu, whose 2,000-plus mills and 280,000 workers create yarns and fabrics earmarked for the U.S. and European markets.
While 46 out of 62 major brands and retailers with reported links to companies in the southern Indian state are divulging their Tier 1 manufacturers, only 23 are publishing at least a partial list of processing facilities involved in printing, dyeing, laundering or embroidery, according to a recent study by grassroots initiative Fashion Revolution. Worse, just 18 are disclosing even a selection of their textile production sites, such as those taking part in spinning, knitting, weaving and fabric production. Conversely, 16 companies, including American Eagle, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, Zara owner Inditex, Ralph Lauren, The Children’s Place and Walmart, are providing no information about any of their suppliers.
Translated, this means that only 31 percent of the brands and retailers that Fashion Revolution reviewed, such as Asos, H&M, G-Star Raw, Levi Strauss and Marks & Spencer, are divulging at least some of their textile production sites, said the organization, which regularly poses the question #WhoMadeMyClothes on social media. Out of the 62, however, only one—Swedish denim label Nudie Jeans—supplies a complete list of its textile production sites.
“The others are disclosing only the textile production sites, which either constitute their core supplier base, cover a specific portion of their production volume, or may be listed due to being vertically integrated into suppliers further up the chain,” the group wrote in the report “Out of Sight: A Call for Transparency from Field to Fabric,” which it published this month in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu Alliance, a civil society forum of 100 grassroots organizations in southern India.
The coalition, which launched the Tamil Nadu Declaration and Framework of Action at the same time, is urging the fashion industry to help eradicate severe labor exploitation in the region’s spinning mills through reform across five key areas, the first of which is the expansion of supply-chain transparency. Brands and retailers, it added, need to publicly disclose the details of all textile and raw material manufacturing processes—not just the ones they have direct business relationships with.
The other issues follow, the Tamil Nadu Alliance said, including policy development and engagement, fair and equitable purchasing practices, worker-centered monitoring mechanisms and grievance mechanisms, all of which would help address the excessive and involuntary overtime, extremely low wages, physical and sexual violence and restriction of freedom of movement that are endemic to the sector. And the deeper the supply chain goes, the worse the problems get.
“When you start to look further down the supply chain where fabrics are knitted or woven, textiles are treated and laundered, yarns are spun and dyed, fibers are sorted and processed and raw materials are grown and picked—what the industry commonly refers to as Tiers 2, 3, 4 and 5—there remains a widespread lack of transparency,” the report’s authors wrote. “In fact, there seems to be a broad absence of investigation and supply-chain mapping beyond the first tier.”
The limits of supply-chain transparency are a problem that extends beyond India. When Fashion Revolution reviewed 250 of the world’s biggest brands and retailers for its annual Fashion Transparency Index in April, it found that only 40 percent were publicly disclosing a list of their Tier 1 manufacturers. Just over half of those—24 percent—were doing the same with select Tier 2 and 3 suppliers.
But although brands and retailers “may not have the same level of influence on suppliers deeper in the supply chain as they do with first-tier manufacturers, these lower-tier suppliers are just as critical to brands’ success,” the report’s authors note. “Without fibers and fabrics, made by the facilities and people further down the chain, brands would not have clothes to sell. Decisions made by brands during the design and sourcing phase of the product development—such as quality, color, price, lead time and last-minute order amendments—have impacts on working conditions at every tier of the supply chain, right down to raw material.”
Exploitation, they added, tends to “thrive in hidden places.” A 2013 study conducted by BSR and Sedex found, for instance, that Tier 2 and 3 suppliers incurred up to 27 percent more critical labor, human rights and environmental issues than their Tier 1 counterparts. Home workers at the bottom of the supply chain, in particular, not only lack the job security or stable incomes of their factory colleagues, but they’re also afforded none of their social protections or right to legal restitution, however precarious those may be.
Covid-19, and the power asymmetry it has made even more stark, has exacerbated all these problems. Multiple Indian states have proposed suspending labor protections for workers to “expedite the post-pandemic recovery,” including extending daily working hours from eight to 12 for a period of up to three years. Brands and retailers, facing financial straits of their own, have been further skewing sourcing dynamics by downsizing order volumes, forcing steep discounts and imposing extended payment terms that leave suppliers with scant liquidity. If current trends continue, 57 percent of suppliers say it is extremely or somewhat likely they will have to close down business, one poll recently found.
“In contrast, major brands and retailers should be paying extra attention and providing extra support to their suppliers at this time, not just first-tier manufacturers but those deeper in the supply chains, too—the textile mills, tanneries, dye houses, workshops, plantations and farms,” the authors wrote. “This requires that brands have visibility and take responsibility beyond the first tier.”