Fashion Revolution, a non-profit founded to call for more transparency and accountability in the fashion industry, releases its Fashion Transparency Index every year. This index assesses publicly disclosed information about the efforts of major fashion brands regarding human rights and environmental issues. For 2023, the findings show that the industry still has a long way to go: there is improvement when it comes to fulfilling the baseline – mostly the one which is required by law. Furthermore, brands are increasingly publishing their policies and commitments to address human rights and their environmental impact. When it comes to the results of these policies and commitments, however, most brands stay opaque. Moreover, supply chains have become so complicated that it is difficult for the brands to assess them – whether this was done on purpose or not remains to be clarified.
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What is the Mission of Fashion Revolution?
Fashion Revolution, the organisation behind the Fashion Transparency Index was founded in 2014 – in the aftermath of the disaster at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 and calls for transparency and accountability in the fashion industry. It is an activism movement which mobilises citizens, industry and policy makers and aims at a fashion industry which offers “dignified work, fair and equal pay and respect for culture and heritage […] [and] conserves and restores the environment and does not waste” (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 6). (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 5+6)
Fashion Revolution considers transparency as a major driver to change – unfortunately, up until today, many brands still remain opaque when it comes to their supply chains and there is virtually no punishment as a consequence. The organization argues that transparency is the foundation of sustainability – not radical but necessary. Without transparency no accountability, sustainability and fair play in fashion. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 5)
The sample of the Fashion Transparency Index is made up of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands. The reason for this focus is Fashion Revolution’s argument that these also have the biggest negative effect on workers and the environment and, hence, should bear the biggest responsibility to change. These brands are then ranked according to their public disclosure levels on human rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts in their own operations and their supply chains. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 5)
The index was first published in 2017 and up until today, the majority of the global fashion industry stays opaque about their actions. Fashion Revolution says it is talking about a very low level of transparency and it is difficult to get information even on that. Brands are disclosing more about their policies and commitments in the report but, at the same time, they are disclosing less about their outcome. According to the organisation, transparency is only a starting point but the “stubborn opaqueness of the wealthiest companies in the world signals a desire to maintain the status quo” (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 6). We all know what that means: we will not be able to save ourselves from the climate crisis, and the trillion-dollar fashion industry will keep creating absurd excess while exploiting our environment and those who make the clothes. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 6)
A positive development mentioned in the report is that policymakers (e.g. in the EU in general and several of its member countries, the US and Japan) do see that regulatory changes for multinational companies and global supply chains are necessary. It obviously has now been accepted that we cannot rely on the voluntary disclosure of the private players. The European Parliament has voted for the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) in June 2023 and has therefore sent a clear signal about the responsibilities of global fashion companies. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 6)
How Does the Index Work?
The Fashion Transparency Index measures what brands know AND publicly share about their impact on human rights and the environment ACROSS their value chains. Information or data on major policies, procedures, performance and progress regarding human rights and environmental issues have to be publicly disclosed on the brand’s or the parent company’s website, or disclosed in other places specified by Fashion Revolution such as their annual report. Therefore, as the name suggests, the index measures transparency in the sense of public disclosure. It DOES NOT measure impacts, verification of claims by the brands beyond the scope of research, ethics or sustainability. The reason behind this is probably the assumption that if brands work on the issues, they have no problem to talk about it, while brands who do not want to change anything would tend to cover up their actions. The index does not rely on information on social media channels or provided in store – the reason is that Fashion Revolution excludes anything the brands claim to be doing behind the scenes. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 36)
The research is done via a questionnaire which is sent to the 250 major fashion brands. These have an annnual turnover of more than USD $400 million (if they are privately held, turnover is being estimated based on publicly available information), they represent a range
of market segments (including high street, luxury, sportswear, accessories, footwear and denim) and regions. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 34)
The index and its questions cover five key areas:
- Policies & Commitments
- Supply Chain Traceability
- Know, Show & Fix
- Spotlight Issues, which this year are:
- Decent work, covering: forced labour, living wages, purchasing practices, unionisation, and collective bargaining
- Gender & racial equality
- Sustainable sourcing & materials
- Overconsumption, business models, waste & circularity
- Water & chemicals
- Climate change, fossil fuels & biodiversity
What Do the Scores Mean?
The index measures from 0 to 100%, in order to keep this article simple, I chose to publish the two extremes and one mid-range example (more details can be found in the Fashion Transparency Index Report 2023).
Scores 0-5%: nothing at all or a very limited number of policies, which tend to be related to the brand’s hiring practices or local community engagement activities and often the amount required by law (e.g. a gender pay gap report).
- Detailed information about their policies, procedures, social and environmental goals, governance, supplier assessments, remediation processes and some supplier assessment findings.
- Likely to be publishing more detailed supplier lists, many will be publishing processing facilities as well as manufacturers.
- More likely to be addressing some Spotlight Issues, (e.g. carbon emissions, gender equality).
Scores 81-100%: in addition to disclosed information described for the scores below, the companies publish:
- detailed information about supplier assessment and remediation findings for specific facilities.
- detailed supplier lists for at least 95% of all suppliers at manufacturing and processing level facilities, and extensive raw material supplier lists.
- their social and environmental impacts
- comprehensive data on their use of sustainable materials.
- the gender breakdown of job roles within their own operations and in the supply chain.
- detailed information about the company’s purchasing practices, the company’s approach and progress towards living wages for workers in their supply chain.
- their carbon emissions, use of renewable energy and water footprint from their own operations and across their supply chains.
(Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 43-44)
What Is New for the Index This Year?
The index is constantly evolving and changes of the 2023 edition involve, amongst others, new indicators regarding wages such as the weekly take-home wage for entry-level workers on a standard work week of no more than 48 hours, excluding overtime. Another added dimension are indicators on the disclosure of phasing out coal and emission reductions. Furthermore the method of “degrowth” has been introduced which means prioritising “social and ecological wellbeing over corporate profits”. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 7)
Selected Key Findings
The Overall Result
Overall, Fashion Revolution calls it “unimpressive progress” (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 8) towards more transparency in fashion. Since its first publishing seven years ago, two brands scored over 80% on the index for the first time – Italian retailer OVS with 83% and Gucci hitting 80%. The latter increased its score by 21% compared to the previous year. The performance varies a lot – on average, the overall score of the largest fashion brands increased 2% up to 26% – a meagre result. It is especially bad when considering that 18 major brands have scored 0% (among them Tom Ford, Max Mara, Savage x Fenty and New Yorker). Again, the brands publish their commitments, policies and processes rather than concrete results of their outcomes. The average in the “Policy” section is 53% while the “Spotlight Issues” section only scored 18% on average. Even the brands with the highest scores lack disclosure on social auditing, living wages, purchasing practices, unionisation, gender and racial equity, production and waste volumes, circularity, chemical use, deforestation and carbon emissions in the supply chain. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 8)
For the 2023-report, 61% of the major brands reviewed participated by handing in a completed questionnaire (vs. 62% the previous year). One important thing has to be noted here: four brands which participated in the previous year (Reebock, Billabong, Roxy and Quicksilver) did not take part in the survey this year. These four brands were bought by Authentic Brands Group which now owns nine brands which do not participate. Fashion Revolution claims to see a pattern of acquired brands dropping/reducing their transparency efforts after being acquired. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 8)
The Luxury Sector Seems to Finally Start to Catch Up
A positive movement regards the luxury segment which is notorious for non-disclosure of their practices and has been lagging behind highstreet and sportswear brands. The five biggest improvers were in the luxury segment: the above-mentioned Gucci (+21% since 2022), Armani (+19%), Jil Sander, Miu Miu and Prada (each +17%). Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that this “improvement” is also relative as the case of Jil Sander shows: it is the first year of the brand even participating. As they have never disclosed anything before, the 17% have to reflect that fact as well. Nevertheless, it is positive that the majority of the top movers in luxuries have achieved this jump by disclosing their supplier list – in some cases from first tier factories (those with whom the brands directly conduct their business, including contracted manufacturers or production partners; find more information on the tier-system here.) down to the suppliers of raw materials. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 9)
Another positive result is that 52% of all brands analysed disclose their supplier list. Nevertheless, it is necessary to aim for a full traceability of the supply chain to achieve change – “We cannot fix what we cannot see.” (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 9)
Traditional practices in the fashion industry pass on the responsibility downwards along the supply chain. While Covid-19 put a spotlight on many unfair practices, only 12% of brands publish a responsible purchasing code of conduct. Furthermore, many brands increasingly adopt direct-to- consumer (D2C) on-demand models. This means they order very small order quantities upfront, and if they are selling well, orders are increased rapidly. This may be attractive because it reduces the unsold goods – but it comes with a flipside: it puts a lot of pressure and risk on the suppliers and their workers and makes it impossible for them to plan ahead. Furthermore, the gap between the salaries of the top-management and CEOs and the workers is widening. The absurdity is that these business people are frequently among the richest people in the world having made their wealth on the back of the poorest. Moreover, very few bonus payments are linked sustainability targets. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 10)
Waste, Deforestation, Fossil Fuels and Materials
Despite the upcoming changes in legislation to tackle fashion waste, there is still a vast amount of overproduction which is rarely being addressed by the brands. Most major brands do not talk about their annual production volumes and there is no discussion about decreasing the number of items sold. “99% of fashion brands do not disclose a commitment to reduce the number of new items they produce!” (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 11) Take-back schemes, rental and similar business models are a PR-campaign at most and Fashion Revolution calls them “as effective as blocking a dam with a bandage unless the issues of overproduction and overconsumption are addressed at the root.” (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 11) Armani and United Colours of Benetton were the only brands out of the 250 which committed to “edgrowth” – in the case of Armani this means a reduction in the number of items in stock, for example. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 11)
Few major fashion brands have published commitments to zero deforestation and despite the global need to move away from fossil fuels such as coal, only 6% of brands disclosed how much of their supply chain is powered by coal. 51% publish targets on sustainable materials yet only 44% provide information on what constitutes a sustainable material and less than a third publish a breakdown of the fibres sourced each year. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 12,13+16)
Human Rights Lag Behind
Despite generating trillions of dollars in annual revenues, the fashion industry still does not secure living wages for the people who make our clothes and hence, achieve the industry’s success. 99% of the brands analysed to not disclose the number of workers in their supply chains who receive a living wage. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 14)
Major brands continue to be more transparent about their policies and commitments than their results and impacts and more tend to disclose environmental targets than human rights targets. (Fashion Revolution 2023, p. 55)
On average, the brands scored 26%, with the highest score of 53% in the “Policies and Commitments”-section, then the scores steadily increase. This is due to the fact that the companies publish what they “will do” or “claim to do” and do not publish the outcome of said policies.
I was particularly surprised that Tom Ford, Max Mara (each at 0%), Tory Burch (1%) and Dolce & Gabbana (2%) which all operate in the premium or luxury segment scored that low. They scored lower than ultra-fast-fashion retailer Shein (7%). Chanel to me was also shockingly low – at only 11%, and luxury houses Brunello Cuccinelli (14%) and Valentino (18%) did not score much higher. I also was surprised about the 13% score of Anthropologie, as I always associated the brand with sustainable values given their marketing and target group.
Cartier, Hermès, Dior and Louis Vuitton all scored under 30% and are almost on par with Amazon (26%) and much lower than fast-fashion retailers Mango (49%) and Zara (50%) and far below H&M with one of the highest scores at 71%. This illustrate the opaque practices in the luxury segment. Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta are just over 50% and Gucci is one of the out-performer overall and in the luxury segment with 80%. The highest score of 82% was achieved by Italy’s biggest clothing retailer OVS.
In conclusion it can be said that the fashion industry has still a long way to go in terms of transparency – it is quite a grim outlook given that transparency indeed is just the first step on our way to making the industry more sustainable. While there are some positive developments – such as the luxury sector finally at least trying to catch up with everyone else it is shocking how little the major brands still disclose. Almost none of the brands publicly committed to reducing the number of items produced or disclosed the number of workers in their supply chains who receive a living wage. The conclusion can be drawn that many brands still try to be opaque about their practices. While they are willing to publish policies or commitments, they do not share the impact or effectiveness of said policies or commitments. It can be assumed that it is easier to publish what “should” be done instead of what actually “is” being done.
Furthermore, it can be concluded that “luxury” does not necessarily equal “transparency”. While this score indicates the levels of public disclosure and not sustainability per se, it can be questioned if luxury brands scoring low on transparency really do employ sustainable and ethical actions. This is mere speculation as we cannot tell from this index but the question luxury will have to answer if their claims about artisanal craftsmanship and quality also involve human rights and environmental impact which many luxury shoppers probably associated with the word “luxury” as well.
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.