Cotton2Cloth: Fashion industry players discuss transparency

by Jill Tucker, C&A Foundation on Dec 16, 2016

'Truth never damages a cause that is just.' With these words, Leslie Johnston, C&A Foundation Executive Director, opened the conference Cotton2Cloth: Transparency in the Apparel Industry, held in Negombo, Sri Lanka from 5 – 8 December 2016.

The meeting, co-hosted by C&A Foundation, Humanity United, Open Society Foundations and Transparentem, brought together 57 participants from 12 countries including representatives of all levels of the apparel supply chain, including manufacturers, brands and retailers, government, NGOs and, importantly, workers.

Participants discussed how to use transparency to improve working conditions in the apparel industry, repositioning it as a tool for positive change with benefits across the entire supply chain.

“Transparency is a core pillar of C&A Foundation's work. We believe it can bring about accountability and transform the fashion industry into a force for good.”

Executive Director C&A Foundation, Leslie Johnston

During the meeting, held under the Chatham House Rule, participants confronted difficult topics, such as manufacturers seeking greater transparency from their buyers. 'The brand compliance department comes with a long to-do list. The sourcing department comes with a price target and the two don't agree. There is a lack of transparency right there,' said one manufacturer.

Workers also shared how they believe they can benefit from greater transparency from employers. 'If employers shared audit information with us, we might be able to ensure that they are accurate and help to achieve better compliance levels,' said one worker representative.

A brand representative stated, 'Transparency is not a goal, but a process that helps us improve; a tool that shares what works and what doesn't.' Another participant added, 'Honestly, name and shame is useful. You need your board to be scared. You need some negative stories to drive change.'

Many participants agreed that transparency could address unequal power dynamics, distributing power more evenly and turning 'the tower of power into a wheel'.

At the same time, brand representatives asked NGOs why the same brands are repeatedly targeted while a much longer list of laggards are not held accountable. NGO participants responded that brands themselves can play a role in levelling the playing field and championing effective legislative reform, as was done in the UK when leading reputation sensitive brands lobbied in support of the UK Modern Slavery Act.

For many participants, it was the first time they interacted with one another and unexpected alliances were forged. For example, worker participants tried to understand manufacturers' perspectives and manufacturers considered how to forge closer relationships with their workers through transparency initiatives, such as sharing information from factory audit reports and business information.

Individual, institutional and collaborative commitments were collected and will be collated and distributed to the participants.

Participants also heard a reading of the soon to be released book A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison, a novel that delves into the complexities and contradictions of the global garment industry. Mr. Addison attended the conference and participated in a question and answer session about the book after the reading.

C&A Foundation is building a portfolio of several transparency-focused programmes across the global garment industry. Read more about transparency initiatives in the sector and how C&A Foundation is supporting them here.