It is ironic that “transparency” has become, well, not so transparent as the fashion industry isn’t being very upfront in how it is defining the word. And in honor of transparency’s definition – “frankness, openness, candor” – I’m going to try to stick to those qualities as I explain this dilemma.
Frankness. Transparency is interesting. It inspires a level of trust and it feels new and fresh, especially in an industry that is so mysterious. It’s not just fashion that has a burgeoning fixation on the idea of transparency. I’ve been listening to the podcast “StartUp”, which is exciting and innovative because never before has anyone been so honest and open about the process of starting a company. It’s easy to understand why this hasn’t been done before. It makes you really vulnerable to share the proud moments and the not-so-proud moments. From a listener’s perspective, it feels like there is nothing withheld. But that’s not true – there is editing, there is waiting for the right time to share sensitive information, and there is strategy, even if it’s all well-intentioned.
Openness. The fixation on transparency is likely a result of the Internet age, where we expect all information to be available at all times. We don’t expect privacy in our own lives, and we have the same “open book” expectations of companies now. This is a great thing, but we need to acknowledge that transparency, in the context of the fashion industry, can mean vastly different things. Companies who claim transparency might be open about some aspects of their business but have no intention of sharing other aspects.
Candor. Transparency could very easily become a meaningless buzzword like “heritage” or “natural”, but there’s still time to stop it from the clutches of marketing. And we should infuse it with real meaning because a movement towards greater transparency in the fashion industry is a win for everyone.
So how is the fashion industry defining transparency?
I think it boils down to four key concepts:
1. Transparency of Pricing – Yes, Everlane claims to be transparent on where their products are made, but what they were really founded on was transparency of pricing. Their claim to fame is that you aren’t paying the markup of traditional retail, and they transparently transfer the savings to you. Later, Honest By used this idea of transparency of pricing to share the exact cost of every button, zipper and fabric that went into the product as well as how much was paid in wages. The idea is to truly show what the item is worth and what it costs to make a responsible high quality product with fair wages.
2. Transparency of Supply Chain – Nike does this best with an interactive map of all of their suppliers (pictured above), so anyone can access the name, address, and details (such as number of workers) for any Nike supplier. This invites activist organizations to hold Nike accountable to its promises of social responsibility and encourages collaboration on factory initiatives with other brands working in the same factories.
3. Transparency of Materials/Ingredients – While this isn’t as common in the fashion industry, there are some great examples in the growing safe beauty product movement around disclosing all ingredients. Beautycounter was founded on this idea, and brands like Tata Harper allow you to trace the ingredients of your product back to the farm. In the apparel industry, Icebreaker allows you to put in the “Baacode” of your purchased garment to trace where the merino wool was sourced and under what conditions. I think this category will grow rapidly in the fashion industry as well as demands for disclosing chemicals used in the dyeing and finishing processes increases.
4. Transparency of Values – This is where it gets murky. There are a lot of great companies founded on strong values that ask for your trust based on those values. Companies like vegan handbag company Matt & Nat or artisan-made shoe company Nisolo claim transparency as one of their core values. While they don’t have complex supply chain maps like Nike or a breakdown of how much they paid workers, there is a clear message that the company is trying to work in the most responsible way possible and will share as much with you as their small staff can possibly do in their limited time. It’s just not always clear how they are sharing it. But there are other brands in this category that maybe we shouldn’t be trusting, so we have to go with our gut a bit here.
Now that your head is spinning you might ask: If transparency is this complicated, why push for it?
Because transparency isn’t just good because you as the consumer know your product was made in a way that you feel ok about. Transparency done well has the opportunity to change the way fashion companies do business – from how brands could collaborate together on worker safety and factory remediation to how a brand makes both financial and responsibility decisions. It’s a win-win for all when companies get a little vulnerable with their peers, partners and customers. Smart people like the founders behind Project Just are on this already, and there’s room for more innovators too.
How do you define transparency? What do you expect from a brand who claims to be transparent? Share your ideas in the comments and include any brands that you think are doing transparency the right way.
Pictured: Screenshot of Nike’s Global Manufacturing Map.