It's hard to hold companies accountable for what you don't know about them, and it's hard to know what you don't know about them if they have free rein to hide whatever they want to from the public.
This is why transparency has become one of the key buzzwords in the sustainability movement, and it's also why advocacy group Fashion Revolution puts out a yearly Fashion Transparency Index. The 2020 report, released on Tuesday, ranks the world's 250 largest apparel brands and retailers based on how much information they share about their supply chains, environmental practices and social commitments.
"We believe transparency is the first step in holding [major brands] to account for the impacts of their business practices," said Fashion Revolution Global Policy Director and report author Sarah Ditty in a release.
This year, the companies topping the ranking as "most transparent" came consistently from the high street or sportswear sectors: Swedish retailer H&M scored highest of all at 73%, with companies like Adidas, Patagonia, Esprit and VF Corporation (owner of Timberland and Vans) also making the top 10.
Luxury players lagged far behind, but when considered as a separate segment of the market, Gucci was the clear winner with a score of 48%. It was closely followed by other Kering-owned brands like Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. Ermenegildo Zegna also earned a hat tip from the report authors for becoming "the first luxury brand to publish a detailed list of its suppliers."
Many of the companies that scored lowest on the ranking are likely to come as no surprise to "ethical fashion" enthusiasts: Fashion Nova and Pretty Little Thing, fast-fashion retailers that have earned reputations for throwaway clothes and sweatshop conditions, earned scores of 2% and 9%, respectively.
But luxury labels weren't immune from low rankings. Max Mara and Tom Ford both scored a shocking 0% on the transparency ranking. As these are based on what brands openly disclose information, a 0% implies that these companies are making almost nothing available about their suppliers, due diligence processes, audits and the like. In short, high prices don't guarantee that a brand will be open and honest about how and where its clothing is made. (And from an American fashion perspective, it's particularly troubling to have a brand run by the current chairman of the CFDA — which has put an increased emphasis on sustainability initiatives in the last year or so — score lower than Fashion Nova on a transparency ranking.)
Also interesting in a time of pandemic is the way the Index reveals which brands are willing to be transparent about the kinds of relationships they have with their suppliers. Any company can put a picture of a smiling garment worker on its website, but this report tries to suss out questions that have become increasingly pressing in the age of Covid-19, like which brands are publishing the percentage of orders they pay their suppliers for on time. As canceled orders create new crises for garment workers going without pay in the middle of a pandemic, these feel more relevant than ever.
For all the work that still needs to be done, Ditty remains hopeful based on the way that she's seen brands become increasingly transparent since the first Index was published a few years back. Transparency isn't a silver bullet for fixing a broken industry — the most transparent company isn't necessarily the all-around most ethical and sustainable one — but it's a critical step on the way to change.
"We will continue to use the Index to measure brands' annual progress on transparency and to push them harder and faster towards taking greater responsibility for their policies and actions on social and environmental issues," she said.
Read the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index in full here.