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Transparency is the key to fashion system change – yet SA retailers fall behind

by | Sep 5, 2023

How much do you know about where your clothes come from? The answer likely is “not much”. In July, Fashion Revolution released its eighth Transparency Index. The Index is an annual review of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers ranked according to their level of public disclosure on human rights and environmental policies, practices, and impacts in their own operations and in their supply chains.

“We focus on the biggest and most profitable brands and retailers because they have the biggest negative impacts on workers and the environment and therefore have the greatest responsibility to change,” reads the 2023 Transparency Index. This year’s index examined brands with revenues over $400 million according to 258 very-specific indicators.

We focus on the biggest and most profitable brands and retailers because they have the biggest negative impacts on workers and the environment

According to the 2023 Transparency Index, four brands scored in the 70% range (including United Colors of Benetton and H&M), and two brands scored 80% or above (the iconic brand Gucci and the lesser-known Italian brand OVS). The average score was just 26% in the 2023 report, only 2% up on last year. Important to note is that the Transparency Index doesn’t measure impacts, it measures public disclosure. While transparency isn’t equated to the overall sustainability of a brand, it’s a starting point that cannot be skipped.

Traceability refers to the ability to track and trace the journey of a product throughout its supply chain, from raw materials to the finished garment. On the other hand, transparency involves providing clear and accessible information about a fashion item’s origins, production processes, and ethical practices.

Together, traceability and transparency aim to empower consumers to make informed decisions, promote sustainable and ethical practices, and discourage exploitative and extractive labour and environmental practices.

Traceability and transparency aim to empower consumers to make informed decisions, promote sustainable and ethical practices

Courtney Barnes, South African R-CTFL Masterplan programme manager adds that for South African retailers, transparency and traceability will ensure South Africa has a globally competitive value clothing and textile sector. “Retailers set the price, quality and competitiveness standards within their value chains. Any form of upgrading requires a strong understanding of the current state,” she says referring to a drive towards sustainability in the fashion sector.

“We’re increasingly seeing investors ask hard questions about supply chain governance matters – regulatory compliance, labour practices, and environmental impact. Retailers that can demonstrate they are taking these governance issues seriously, while maintaining investor returns, are far better placed to attract international investment on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. For retailers looking to expand outside of South African markets into Australia and the European Union, this pressure will be even greater,” says Courtney.

When we last reported on the Transparency Index in 2020, Woolworths scored 19%, Mr Price 16%, Truworths 15%, and Foschini 14%.  Woolworths and Mr. Price scored 1% for the traceability of their factories, processing facilities, and raw materials, while Foschini and Truworths both scored 0%.

Now, three years later, Woolworths scored 29%, Mr. Price 11%, Truworths 7%, and Foschini 18%.  Woolworths scored 12% for their overall supply chain traceability, while Mr. Price, Truworths, and Foschini all scored 0%. The comparison over three years shows that Woolworths is the only retailer making significant progress, based on publicly available information. The lack of progress when it comes to traceability is notable.

Alison Lloyd, Woolworths’ sustainability and packaging manager, responded to our request for comment saying, “Woolworths is assessed by The Fashion Revolution Transparency Index annually and is focused on improving the score year on year. The Woolworths 2023 overall assessment was 11% higher than 2022 but more work is to be done on traceability even though Woolworths is the highest-scoring retailer in this category in South Africa. Woolworths has a clear road map for transparency aligned with our sustainability strategy with targets to declare our full value chain. This journey began with the publication of our tier 1 suppliers in December 2021 and we are planning to  publish our tier 2 list of our fabric mills in the near future.”

Helen Twemlow, Head of Sustainability at The Foschini Group, responded by saying, “While we have made significant progress in mapping our Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, we have not yet published supplier information which, in part, contributes to the score achieved in the index. In TFG Africa, 100% of Tier 1 apparel and soft accessories suppliers have been mapped, with 77% of Tier 2 suppliers for TFG Design and Manufacturing fabric suppliers mapped. For TFG London, all of their Tier 1 suppliers have been mapped and they have partially mapped Tier 2. All of TFG Australia’s Tier 1 suppliers have been mapped, with Tier 2 partially mapped.”

Twemlow adds, “We would like to emphasise that within our Africa business unit, our sustainability focus has centred on local manufacture, sourcing, and job creation. More than 70% of all our apparel products are produced locally and last year we provided more than 8 000 jobs and workplace opportunities, through the continued build-out of our manufacturing capacity and store growth.”

Truworths and Mr Price shared via email that they don’t have comment to add at this point.

To put the scores of the South African brands into context, globally only 1% of the brands assessed in the Index disclosed the number of workers in their supply chains being paid a living wage. From an environmental perspective, 12% of brands published near and long-term decarbonization targets verified by the Science-Based Targets Initiative, and 30% of brands disclose a commitment to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals. And only 12% of brands disclosed data on the number of products made annually.

Globally only 1% of the brands disclosed the number of workers in their supply chains being paid a living wage.

On a positive note, 52% of brands shared their first-tier suppliers, marking a significant increase from 32% in the Index’s 2017 report. The production of a garment can be split into emissions tiers: raw material extraction (tier four), raw material processing (tier three), material production (tier two), and finished product assembly (tier one).

Among the 18 brands that rank lowest with a score of 0% are Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty, Tom Ford, Max Mara, and ultra-fast fashion brand Fashion Nova.

As more legislation and regulation are being proposed to hold the fashion industry to account, traceability becomes essential for compliance. For example, the European Commission proposed a new regulatory framework, the Digital Product Passport (DPP) regulation, in March 2022. The DPP was invented to address a growing need for enhanced transparency, traceability, and authenticity in various industries. The aim is to provide a comprehensive and secure digital record of a product’s lifecycle, from its creation to its end use.

Plus, transparency and traceability create an enabling environment for a circular economy, facilitating processes such as product recycling, refurbishment, and proper disposal at the end of its lifecycle. To create responsible end-of-life decisions about a garment, we need to know what it’s made of and where it comes from.

It’s often said that “what can’t be measured, can’t be managed”. So greater traceability allows brands to make data-driven decisions to improve their environmental footprint and social impact.

Traceability and transparency don’t make a product sustainable, but they do create an enabling environment for a more equitable fashion system. Sustainable fashion is as much about rethinking how we produce as it is reorienting our fashion system and the way we relate to the stories behind our clothes.

  • Cover image: Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.
  • Read the 2023 Fashion Revolution Transparency Index here.
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