Jasmin-Malik-Chua Sustainable fashion journalist Jasmin Malik Chua. Photo by Dan Cutrona.

Jasmin Malik Chua: “Transparency, both in terms of operations and communications, is the key”

As fashion industry supply chains are many times a tangled up and hard-to-trace webs of obfuscations and diversions, sustainable fashion journalist Jasmin Malik Chua calls out for clarity.

“For decades, brands have thrived on obfuscation and diversion. Pay no attention to the supply chain behind the curtain! Ignore the human-rights abuses that are responsible for this incredible bargain! Turn a blind eye to the environmental degradation that’s paying for this mind-blowingly cheap deal!

But as the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh proved, opacity can be more of a bane than a panacea. When the eight-story building fell apart at its seams on the morning of April 24, 2013, 1,134 garment workers lost their lives, and thousands more barely escaped with grievous injuries or missing limbs.

In a matter of hours, the disaster had cemented its place as the worst industrial accident in the South Asian nation’s history, yet it would be weeks before some of the world’s biggest apparel brands were able to ascertain their relationship, if any, with the factories that called Rana Plaza home.

For weeks, Walmart denied any association with the suppliers at Rana Plaza, until documents indicating otherwise surfaced. Still, the world’s no. 1 retailer disclaimed culpability, instead blaming a ‘rogue employee‘ for hiring one of factories without the authorization of senior management. Those hands were clean, naturally.

« Nobody—and no brand—is perfect, but clearly defined and quantifiable goals are the way to a new paradigm built on openness, not obscurity »

As it turns out, most fashion companies don’t own the factories where their clothes are made. To meet the high-volume demands of their clients, suppliers may portion some of the work to one or more of the thousands of unregulated ‘shadow’ facilities that permeate Bangladesh’s garment industry. Sometimes these subcontracts do their own sub-subcontracting, weaving a supply web so tangled that you would be hard-pressed to trace the provenance of whole garments, let alone every last zipper, lining, or trim.

They’re the sartorial equivalent of riddles, wrapped in mysteries, inside enigmas.

If brands want to inspire confidence in the growing segment of consumers who prefer to see themselves as conscious rather than complicit, they need to know where their products are made, how they are made, and who makes them.

Transparency, both in terms of operations and communications, is the key. Nobody—and no brand—is perfect, but clearly defined and quantifiable goals are the way to a new paradigm built on openness, not obscurity.

There are myriad organizations who will hold brands accountable: Labour Behind the Label, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labor Rights Foundation and the Workers Rights Consortium are among the most vociferous advocates, online and off.

Fashion Revolution, which emerged in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, ranks the efforts of 100 global fashion companies in its annual Transparency Index.

Greenpeace’s Detox Catwalk checks in on the brands that have pledged to eliminate hormone-disrupting industrial chemicals, such as perfluorinated compounds, from their products and supply chains.

Project Just unteases the facts and fictions of brands’ ethical claims, and not-for-profits like Made-By, MySource and Made in a Free World offer a slew of tools to help apparel businesses see their supply chains in a more principled light.

Wipe the sleep stuff from your eyes; it’s time we all started seeing more clearly.”

Jasmin Malik Chua was the managing editor of Ecouterre.com, which covered ethical and sustainable fashion until its retirement in February. She is now a freelance journalist at www.jasminchua.com.

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