Supply chain transparency and ethical sourcing go hand in hand. Increasingly, companies in the garment industry are under pressure to share information about the origins of their clothes and provide guarantees that all of their suppliers - as well as their suppliers' suppliers - are ethically sound.
Of course, it hasn't always been this way. But consumers are becoming more demanding every year. As standards of disclosure improve and the volume of information at their disposal rises, they are digesting, interpreting and applying it in increasingly sophisticated ways. And, thanks to the reach of social media, they can easily share their findings with friends.
Many consumers are no longer satisfied by a 'Made in Bangladesh' label on their new jeans - they want to trace the garment's journey from design to store. They're concerned about the quality, safety and environmental impact of the clothes and accessories they buy.
This new type of buyer - sometimes labelled the 'compassionate' or 'conscious' consumer - considers the full effects of each purchase they make. This includes the values of the company they're doing business with and the social impact of the goods being bought. They're interested in the people and processes that come into play long before items end up in a shop window on their local high street.
Transparency in Fashion
All companies with global sourcing operations are now responding to this demand. In the fashion industry, the shift to greater transparency is proving particularly difficult for firms that still retain unflattering elements in their global production lines. Some luxury fashion brands also seem to harbour an innate distrust of transparency, believing that greater disclosure will harm their competitive advantage.
However, there can be no doubt that things are changing. Practices that were confined to a small number of niche 'ethical' clothing firms just a few years ago are now being adopted by major apparel brands.
Bruno Pieters, the Belgian fashion designer and former art director at Hugo Boss, is one of those leading the way. His own luxury clothing brand, Honest By, has been billed as the world's first 100% transparent company. This is because Pieters provides shoppers with an unprecedented amount of information about his clothes. Not only does he ensure the manufacturer of every single fabric and trim is traceable; he provides details about the raw materials that went into the textiles where possible. Controversially, Honest By also publishes an itemised break-down of how much it costs to produce each garment - even the brand's retail mark-up is shared with the public.
Honest By is a relatively minor player at the moment, but Pieters is an influential figure with a strong pedigree in fashion, and his ideas are destined to find a wider audience. He believes complete transparency will soon become mandatory, so brands that act now can avoid onerous legwork further down the line while positioning themselves as leaders in their field.
The designer told the Business of Fashion earlier this year: "Buying a mystery will be an absurd concept soon. There's no luxury in a riddle."
The Business Case for Transparency
Pieters is an outspoken critic of luxury brands that charge a high mark-up for goods that are no longer bespoke and hand-crafted. "The heritage of what people are buying into isn't what is being delivered," he said in comments reported by the Guardian in July. The implication is that some high-end retailers deliberately obscure supply chain details because certain aspects of their production are not entirely in keeping with their brand image.
Rob Harrison, editor of UK publication Ethical Consumer, rejects the claim that luxury brands cannot be more transparent for fear of exposing their secrets to rivals. "I'd say there's no evidence that transparency has ever harmed a business," he told the Business of Fashion.
In fact, more businesses are realising that the transparent supply chain is good for business simply because it is what a growing number of consumers demand. Soon, it will be what they expect.
However, clothing manufacturers can only provide details regarding the provenance of their products if they have complete visibility across their supply chain, and confidence that it is not open to abuse. This is where new technologies - and specifically production tracking systems like Segura - look set to play an increasingly important role.
Originally published 12/11/2013