LONDON, United Kingdom — Only a few years ago, someone like Bruno Pieters would have been called a stargazing idealist or a charismatic fanatic. Opinions would have varied, but consensus could have been reached in the knowledge that his brand, Honest By, was operating on the very fringes of the fashion industry. Today, although a few die-hard sceptics do remain, by and large Pieters' small, but pioneering business is considered something of a benchmark for practices that many brands still struggle to grasp, never mind effectively implement.
"If you don't do it now, you'll have to adapt when complete transparency becomes mandatory," says the soft-spoken yet uncompromising former art director of Hugo by Hugo Boss and designer of his own label for 10 years. "I think it's wiser to be a leader who's ahead of the rest rather than being behind because, you know, it will become mandatory one day. People who have doubts about this are the same sort of people who once believed women wouldn't have the right to vote and gay people wouldn't have to right to marry. Buying a mystery will be an absurd concept soon. There's no luxury in a riddle."
Mainstream attitudes toward transparency and traceability — defined as the disclosure of information relating to material sources, manufacturers and other suppliers in order for all stakeholders, including end consumers, to have a complete and accurate picture of the ethical and environmental impact of a product — have been changing as the fashion industry scrambles to catch up with rising customer expectations.
And while it's true that the goalposts and collective mood have both irrevocably shifted since the spate of recent catastrophes in Bangladeshi and Cambodian factories, much of the soul-searching done by international brands has been just that: a lot of waffle, platitudes and some well-meaning natter. Pieters, on the other hand, has made the conscious decision to completely reorient his business around a new model that puts transparency and traceability at the very core of his ethically sourced, organic luxury fashion brand.
So meticulous is the Belgian maverick that shoppers can not only trace the manufacturer and composition of the garment, fabrics and lining but also that of the zippers, buttons, thread and even the safety pin holding the hang tag to the item's care label. And whenever he can persuade textile suppliers to reveal details about origins and sources, he creates a painstaking 'pedigree' that traces the fabric through the supply chain of raw materials, yarn spinners, weavers, printers and dyers. More astonishingly — and also found at the product detail pages on the Honest By website — is an itemised break-down of the garment's cost to the very last penny, including his wholesale and retail mark-up percentages.
"I've not seen supplier detail like this before. The cost break-down is also a first so far as I can tell," says Rob Harrison, editor of UK-based Ethical Consumer which is a no-nonsense, not-for-profit organisation publishing special buyer guides and bi-monthly issues of its self-titled magazine since 1989. "This is a new benchmark for the aspiring super-ethical niche. [But upmarket merchandise] produced in limited editions [like this] is not a model likely to be shaking the Primarks of this world any time soon. Still, it's an important contribution nonetheless."
Though few others have come anywhere close to this degree of near-naked transparency, there are a handful of brands exposing sensitive and the not always entirely flattering inner-workings of their production in the hope that the positives of being open outweigh any negatives found in the exposed details. And in fairness to many other brands making transparency efforts, Pieters' superior achievements stem from his ability to micromanage and monitor the supply chain in what is a comparatively tiny business. Transparency and traceability both become disproportionately more difficult and complex as brands are scaled up. Nevertheless, this month alone saw the launch of two such examples.
Nike's Making app is an open-source tool for designers to become better informed about the environmental impact of the materials they use by scoring them based on properties such as chemical processes, energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas output. It can also be used as an ad-hoc guide for consumers to measure up some of Nike's own products. Nudie Jeans' interactive production guide digitally maps out the Swedish firm's global suppliers, subcontractors and transportation information between them while providing an audit summary and a portfolio of photographs of people at work and the facilities inside each factory. Nike's global manufacturing map covers similar ground and in some instances goes into even further detail.
Not surprisingly, moves such as these have observers debating just how much is good to share and when transparency becomes a liability. In an industry where, for decades, unspoken gentleman's agreements relegated suppliers to silence and luxury brands kept their clandestine overseas production from the buying public, new notions of transparency are often hard to swallow. For many, particularly those at the higher-end, there is a sense that disclosing such information diminishes their competitive advantage or exposes them to predatory rivals.
"Companies always use this as an excuse. We don't think this argument holds water," insists Harrison. "A well-resourced and determined competitor will always be able to discover who a company's key suppliers are. It is the responsible consumers, however, who don't have these resources and who are the ones needing reassurance. I'd say there's no evidence that transparency has ever harmed a business. In fact, much modern business thinking post Web 2.0 is about opening up businesses to stakeholder groups to participate in 'co-production'. As well as being critical, consumers can bring a whole raft of positive ideas to the table too."
Harrison's perspective seems to be one shared by Nike whose spokesperson elaborates: "Sharing innovation doesn't require sacrificing competitive advantages. When we've previously shared innovative breakthroughs in materials business practices and processes with other companies — like our formula for environmentally preferred rubber or our water assessment tool — the impact of those innovations on the environment becomes much more significant, with little or no negative impact on our ability to compete in our industry."
Sandya Lang, CSR manager for Nudie Jeans, goes even further. "For any young designer who might find it easy to contact any of our suppliers now, they are most welcome. We've worked in many cases with our suppliers for a very long time, so there's mutual confidence and trust between us, so we don’t feel threatened by more competition. It may even make us work harder. And in addition, I guess we'll get positive feedback from our suppliers if they know we could generate even more business for them," she says.
While the efforts made by Honest By, Nike and Nudie Jeans each seem to be worthy of varying degrees of applause, surely, hard-nosed cynics would find such generosity hard to believe or at the very least sounding a little trite unless brands were frank about exactly how they define and where they draw the line with regard to trade secrets.
"Definitely, there is a line," stresses Lang from Nudie. "We've decided to be transparent about our product locations and conditions at the suppliers because we believe that it will help to improve the conditions in the long run — through both internal and external pressure by us and the suppliers. But we'll not be transparent [about] laundry recipes for our washed jeans, the price discussions between us and the suppliers or designer development work that is taking place in the Nudie Jeans headquarters for example."
Once the objectives, strategy and parameters have been clearly set surrounding a transparency initiative, getting the tone right can be just as important. Consumers are now much more savvy than ever before about brands' targets and investment in rapidly-growing corporate social responsibility departments. With this comes a heighted ability among shoppers for detecting whether transparency initiatives seem sincere or not.
"First, we don’t consider this as a CSR campaign," counters Lang. "This is the way we work and we have just decided to share it online since we believe that our customers should have access to this information – if they want it. As you can see there are not only positive issues that are reported [on the map] but also less positive points. That is, unfortunately, the reality in this industry and you could find the same, similar or worse problems in any factory in any country for any brand. If we weren’t sincere about the reality and willing to improve it, we may as well hide our supply chain the best we can. So yes, we hope that customers will see our efforts to try to be sincere, transparent and improving the conditions in our supply chain."
One way fashion brands will ultimately be judged credible or not is whether transparency fits into a much wider and deeper, long-lasting commitment to sustainability issues. In the case of Nudie, that credibility really began last year when it finally achieved its goal of becoming 100 percent organic which was set six years earlier. Its new online production guide map appears to be just the first step in achieving its next goal of full transparency in the near future.
Although Nike's Making app has been criticised as 'fleeting' by some ethical consumer advocates, it stands as just one small component in a much grander transparency project — the Nike Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), a database that is the result of over seven years of research taking inventory of more than 77,000 materials.
Nike reports that it invested over $6 million in the MSI and that its data has since been adopted by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), "which represents about 1/3 of the global apparel industry, as the basis for its industry-wide materials assessment tool." But crucially, the company has been investing heavily in sustainability consistently over the entire past decade, first as a reaction to its public relations nadir in the early 1990s when the brand faced boycotts after the press exposed 'sweatshops' in Asia.
"We have been on a journey to build a more sustainable company since [then], and the past has informed where we are today. We’ve taken on the tough issues, learned a lot of lessons, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without having gone through that period," says a spokesperson for Nike, asserting that its most recent sustainability report was "recognised in April 2013 as the best overall report and most innovative report by the Corporate Register Reporting Awards [CRRA]."
To some veterans in the fashion industry, it may yet take some persuading before they come around to the idea that airing their less-than-perfectly-clean laundry in public is a smart move. And for the many who cringe and roll their eyes at rallying cries like 'clothes with a conscience', it's probably best to not present transparency as part of newly benevolent business environment. Instead, that being benevolent now means better business because, in the end, transparency and traceability are concepts anchored in building consumer trust.
"If a brand is proud about something, they'll make sure we know about it; if they're doing something they believe we won't appreciate they'll keep us guessing. But actually, it is their silence that is already the answer we need in order to make a decision. This is where the danger lies for all companies that aren't transparent. No customer just assumes [brands are doing their] best these days. And there is no design pretty enough to make anyone forget that fact," cautions Pieters.