Apparel Brands Need to Be More Transparent About Where Clothes Come From

©. Human Rights Watch

A new report called 'Follow the Thread' assesses the willingness of 72 companies to publish important supply chain information.

Four years ago, when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 employees, it was extremely difficult to find out which companies sourced their apparel from that specific factory – a building that employees knew was unsafe. Only by interviewing survivors and sifting through rubble for brand labels were people able to identify the companies and start advocating for accountability and improvement of standards.

It was an unfortunate end to an already heartbreaking disaster, and one that, arguably, could have been averted if there were more transparency in the garment industry.

Rana Plaza is the inspiration for a new Transparency Pledge, created by an international coalition of labor rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Clean Clothes Campaign, Worker Rights Consortium, and the Maquila Solidarity Network. The coalition has published a 40-page report called “Follow the Thread: The Need for Supply Chain Transparency in the Garment and Footwear Industry.”

It contacted 72 major clothing and footwear companies and asked them to adopt the following Transparency Pledge, which would require making information about manufacturing sites available to the public. The results were published in the report.

The Pledge: The company will publish on its website on a regular basis (such as twice a year) a list naming all sites that manufacture its products. The list should provide the following information in English:
1. The full name of all authorized production units and processing facilities
2. The site addresses
3. The parent company of the business at the site
4. Type of products made
5. Worker number at each site

Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, says this is not an unrealistic request:

“A basic level of supply chain transparency in the garment industry should be the norm in the 21st century. Openness about a company’s supply chain is better for workers, better for human rights, and shows that companies care about preventing abuse in their supply chains.”

‘Follow the Thread’ explains how transparency can boost a company’s reputation and image, and does not put them at a competitive disadvantage.

“Publishing supply chain information builds the trust of workers, consumers, labor advocates, and investors, and sends a strong message that the apparel company does not fear being held accountable when labor rights abuses are found in its supply chain. It makes a company’s assertion that it is concerned about labor practices in its supplier factories more credible.”
Chinese garment factory

Matt -- View into a Chinese garment factory/CC BY 2.0


Compliant brands include Patagonia, H&M;, Levi’s, Adidas, C&A;, Clarks, and Esprit (among others).

Brands that almost met requirements include Gap, Marks & Spencer, Mountain Equipment Co-op, and Tesco (among others).

Brands that provided partial disclosure include Columbia Sportswear, Disney, New Balance, Under Armour, Hudson’s Bay Company, and Benetton (among others).

Brands that made no commitment to publish and/or failed to respond to the call for transparency include Canadian Tire (owner of Mark’s and SportChek), The Children’s Place, Inditex (owner of Zara), Hugo Boss, MANGO, Forever 21, Primark, American Eagle Outfitters, Armani, and Carter’s (among others).

Garment supply chain graphic

Human Rights Watch -- Garment supply chain graphic/via

The coalition plans to publish an update in 2018 to review how companies have upheld their pledges. There is fear that “companies have gone back to sleep” in the four years since Rana Plaza, and the intensity of customers’ ethical concerns has diminished; but the coalition believes that if it can get enough big-name brands on board with improving transparency, then real change can happen. The Toronto Star quotes Bob Jeffcott of the Maquila Solidarity Network:

“In the past when we would contact an individual company they would say we only have 10 per cent of the production in that factory, we don’t have much leverage. But if you can leverage four or five buyers from the same factory they can actually achieve something.”

In response to the report, the United Steelworkers of Canada has launched a campaign to urge Canadian Tire and its various brands to stop hiding its factories from public scrutiny. It is “unacceptable,” said USW director Ken Neumann, who witnessed the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster and was deeply affected by it. “It’s time to stop operating in the dark.” You can sign the Canadian Tire petition here.

Accompanying the report is a petition, asking companies to #GoTransparent. Add your name here.