The power of transparency

by C&A Foundation on Apr 24, 2017

How do you champion transparency in an opaque and complex industry? And can you leverage that transparency to effect real change for workers?

"These are questions C&A Foundation is increasingly looking at through its grants and partnerships", says Jill Tucker, Head of Supply Chain Innovation and Transformation.

“We've seen in other sectors and in civil society how public disclosure of information can affect change and hold people to account. The Panama Papers is one recent example. With more information, the public can demand change. We want to see that in the apparel sector as well."

The fashion industry is notorious for its complex and often opaque supply chains. Currently, there is no easy way for consumers to know where their clothing is made or under what conditions, apart from reading the country of origin on the label.

“The problem is that the information is held by a few actors," explains Jill. “Tens of thousands of factory audits are carried out every year, yet with few exceptions, results remain inaccessible to people other than factory management and the buyer involved. Information about working conditions is rarely shared with workers, government or the public – the parties most likely to exert pressure for improvement. And without information, it's difficult to act."

“Information about working conditions is rarely shared with workers, government or the public. And without information, it’s difficult to act.”

Head of Supply Chain Innovation & Transformation Jill Tucker

There are some encouraging signs that things are starting to change. Fashion Revolution, with the support of C&A Foundation, has published the 2017 Fashion Transparency Index – a review of 100 global fashion brands and retailers according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impact.

Fashion Revolution found that a growing number of brands are beginning to embrace transparency. Overall brands are widely sharing policies and commitment and an increasing number are featuring the names and locations of some or all of their direct suppliers on their websites.

But there is still work to be done. The average score for all brands in the Fashion Transparency Index in 49 out of 250, with no brand scoring more than 50%. For the most part, brands are publishing little information on “impacts of their practices" including, for example, the results of supplier assessments or detailed remediation activities.

“While we are positive about the development of the industry", says Jill, “we would like to see more and better information being shared in the public domain."

C&A Foundation sees transparency as a first step towards accountability and behaviour change across the supply chain and we support initiatives that gather and publicly disclose information so that different users can act on it to improve working conditions.

But we also recognise that transparency must be complemented by other mechanisms, so that changes at factory levels can be embedded across the industry. These include systems to encourage dialogue, tools to support key actors to make changes, and the strengthening of workers to negotiate for these changes.

For example, one way to tackle the problem is to put the power back into the hands of the workers themselves, and technology is starting to make that possible.

“Most workers now have a phone in their hand and we're exploring how we can use that technology to gather data on their working conditions, and to connect and empower worker communities so that they can push for the improvements that are most important to them."

Recently LaborVoices Inc published the results of a C&A Foundation supported initiative that used mobile phone technology to gather the views of workers in the Turkish apparel industry, giving them a chance to speak out about their working conditions.

With pressure coming from different sides – including forward-thinking brands, government, civil society, consumers, and workers - the call for change will become harder and harder for transparency-resistant brands, retailer and suppliers to ignore. And with greater action by such actors, we'll make concrete steps toward true industry transformation.

Click here for more on C&A Foundation's commitment to transparency