This post was sponsored by Asquith London, all thoughts my own.
Sustainable shopping can be overwhelming. Fashion’s inherently complex supply chain means there are always multiple factors to consider, which can make it difficult to understand. Add this to the fact that no one is ever going to be completely perfect, and it can be hard to know what elements you should prioritise if you need to buy something. While I did write a guide to how I shop for sustainable fashion which covers multiple areas, today I also wanted to explain my streamlined version.
If you’re newer to ethical fashion or feeling a little confused on where to start, I recommend looking for two things:
Transparency, combined with a solid commitment to improving.
Let me explain what I mean and why you need both.
What is transparency?
Transparency has been described as “the process of being open, honest, and straightforward about company operations. Transparent companies share information relating to performance, small business revenue, internal processes, sourcing, pricing, and business values.”
Essentially, a transparent company should be able to provide information on where products come from, how they’re made, who makes them, how those workers are treated, and environmental impact.
This all seems pretty obvious, but it’s surprising how few fashion brands can actually answer these questions. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster was a major event that brought this into the public eye. Not only were companies sourcing from suppliers who didn’t ensure basic worker safety, they couldn’t even tell you where their clothes were made. Major brands denied that their garments were produced at Rana Plaza, until campaigners literally dug through the rubble to find labels identifying companies the factory was producing for.
Compare this with smaller organisations, such as Asquith London, who produce in one factory that they can constantly monitor and provide scores of information on, and the problem becomes clear:
The brands that aren’t transparent are also the ones that aren’t able to change.
Transparency is, therefore, seen as a step towards better practice. You can’t change something you don’t know about; brands should dedicate themselves to understanding every part of their supply chain in order to radically improve it at every level. At the same time, people have the right to know what brands are doing so they can make informed choices.
What does transparency in fashion look like?
In practice, transparency in fashion looks like sharing as much as possible on every stage of the supply chain and production processes. It means releasing all information about everyone involved in the process, from seeds to final stitch. Fashion supply chains are particularly complex, so an understanding of everything from farmers to factories, external certifications that monitor supply chains without bias, and the impacts of each process, are key to understanding the impacts on people and the environment.
Good On You, who ask brands to be more transparent and help people navigate the confusing world of understanding who is ethical, break it down into key areas:
- The Planet: what materials are used, in which proportions, how much waste is created, how do they take care of said waste, how is water used and treated?
- People at all stages of the supply chain: who works for the brand, in what factories, under what conditions, are they safe, are they paid a living wage, how many hours do they work, do they have workers’ rights?
- Animals: are animal-derived materials used, how are they sourced, how does the brand control how animals are treated?
They believe brands should know this information in detail. They should also make it easily accessible to all consumers and interested organisations, such as unions and advocacy groups. (for example, Asquith London publishes details and photos of their factory, information on materials, dyes, external certifications, and packaging. This should be the norm, not the ideal exception!)
It’s also a smart idea for a brand, as McKinsey and Business of Fashion reported that 52% of millennials always research background information before buying.
Why this matters
Firstly, transparency allows us all to make better decisions. For those just getting started on a sustainable/ethical journey, it can be helpful to get to grips with what a supply chain looks like so we know what we need to care about improving. People will always need to clothe themselves, and it should be easy to understand what their sustainable and ethical fashion options are.
Secondly, transparency should allow us to hold brands accountable, ideally shifting the whole industry to be better. We need to know what companies are doing so we can push for constant improvement. Unions and activists groups need to know the situation on the ground so they can advocate for workers and the environment. Transparency without action for improvement won’t create change, but it helps us understand the problems so we can make change happen.
Brands know this. The sudden increase in ‘conscious collections’ and ‘sustainability initiatives’ shows an awareness that priorities are changing, but this alone doesn’t make a brand sustainable.
So what do they actually disclose? 2020’s Fashion Transparency Index found there had been increases in transparency, however this was from 21% in 2019 to 23% in 2020, with 40% disclosing first-tier suppliers (up from 12.5% four years ago). Over half of the 150 brands featured scored less than 20%, with some (both high street and luxury) still disclosing nothing at all.
Plus, while more brands share first-tier suppliers, only 24% and 7% are transparent about processing facilities and raw material suppliers. And while brands published information on their policies and commitments, most didn’t disclose enough about how these policies are actually put into practice. Companies were continually vague on the numbers of workers receiving a living wage and measurable roadmaps of how progress would be achieved.
Transparency must go hand in hand with progress
And that’s the thing. It’s not just about being transparent, it’s about acknowledging what needs to change, planning how you’ll change it and then actually changing it.
only 2% of brands are publishing a time-bound, measurable roadmap or strategy for how they will achieve a living wage for all workers across their supply chains and just 2% publish data on the percentage above the minimum wage rate workers are paid in their supply chains.
… just 20% of brands explain what they are doing to reduce the shedding of microfibres from their clothing
Brands are increasingly transparent about the carbon emission produced by their owned and operated facilities, like head offices and retail stores, but still, only 16 per cent of brands do the same for emissions produced in their supply chain, which is the highest polluting stage in the lifecycle of a garment.
Transparency without action isn’t enough, it just means a brand is more open about all the ways they’re failing. Always look for transparency coupled with commitment and planning for progress.
A recent example of this, (and the genuine inspiration to write this post, if you hadn’t guessed) is Asquith London.
Asquith are already pretty well known for their commitment to ethics and sustainability. Their materials include organic cotton, Oeko-Tex certified bamboo from FSC certified forests and Bambor®, which is a blend of organic bamboo and cotton that is fully traceable. It’s grown, knitted and dyed in Turkey and is GOTS and Oeko-Tex certified, while all their dyes are GOTS certified too.
There are two main points to note here already. Multiple external certifications show they don’t feel they have anything to hide, and those doing the certifying have no bias or reason to lie. Plus, Asquith can immediately say not just where their final products are made, but also where things are grown, knitted and dyed. They’re open to discussing every part of the supply chain and suppliers at all tiers, and they have information to hand to take you on the full journey of each item.
The next step is that Asquith don’t just say where their clothes are made, they give details. Their factory in Turkey is GOTS and Sedex certified, and the Asquith team regularly visit. They can tell you how many people work there, everyone is over 23 (so no chance of child labour at all) the hours (8.5 per day), and that staff receive good wages and have weekends off and paid holidays.
But then, there’s also the acknowledgement of where things could be better. Asquith set themselves a target of plastic-free packaging by 2021, aware that waste reduction was an area that needed improvement. They weren’t just transparent about the good parts. They acknowledged where work was needed and then they did that work.
Their outer mailing bags are now made from fully recyclable and biodegradable kraft paper, made from trees from sustainable forests. For every tree used, two are planted in its place. Their garment bags are completely compostable and biodegradable, their swing tags are made from recycled and recyclable paper and cord, and any paper items are made from recycled and recyclable paper.
This year they’ve also included a giving back initiative for the first time. 5% of profits from each purchase this year go towards Taylor Made Dreams, who support children with life-limiting illnesses, and Adaptive Yoga Live, an organisation founded by two disabled women who provide online seated yoga classes for people with physical limitations, especially those with injury, disabilities and the elderly. Giving back is a fairly common practice within sustainable businesses (who doesn’t love wealth redistribution!), and Asquith recognised this and absorbed it into their model.
So yes, they’re a transparent brand, but this also means they aren’t going to lie about what they want to do better. They have concrete steps to take and timeframes, and then they follow through. Plus, they have plans to further expand on their eco credentials, and are looking to work with a dedicated sustainability consultant to continue growing and adapting, doing all they can. They understand that sustainability is never a fixed goal, and are committed to improving wherever they can.
If you’re looking for sustainable brands and don’t know where to start, this is what I’d recommend looking out for first.