A shout out to the activist group Fashion Revolution, which today, on the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, is encouraging millions of people to ask their favorite brands #whomademyclothes and demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.  

I just signed Fashion Revolution’s manifesto and urge you to do the same by clicking here.

But I have to tell you, it is not just we customers who are in the dark on this subject. The brands themselves often don’t know who made their clothes! They are comfortable with a dense fog of opacity about their own supply chain—which makes it conveniently possible to ignore the impacts of their manufacture.

In particular, the vast majority of brands still don’t know where their fabric is dyed. BIG problem, since this step with the heaviest environmental footprint. Even those companies recognized by Fashion Revolution for leadership on transparency generally are reporting the location of only the final step in their supply chain—their cut and sew factories (“Tier One”), where labor issues lie. The labor issues are hugely important, don’t get me wrong. But these same companies need to also take responsibility for their environmental impact, which occurs predominantly in their dyeing and finishing mills (“Tier 2”). 

(For a handful of exceptions to this rule, see here.) 

Casual consumers can be excused for thinking the fashion industry has gotten with the “sustainability” program, given the growing memberships rosters of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals trade associations as well as the torrent of brightly colored corporate sustainability reports that so many companies produce for us annually. 

But club membership and good PR is NOT what we are looking for, right? What matters is whether corporations are taking responsibility for pollution, energy, and water usage where they make your stuff. And I must say, I’m getting pretty fed up with the ever-expanding gap between what apparel companies say they care about and what they actually do on the ground. 

An analogy. What would you think if a struggling city school system trumpeted the hire of a great new superintendent to improve student academic performance. But they didn’t have a list of which schools were in their school system! And they had never given their students county-level exams to quantify academic performance. How seriously would you take the mayor’s press release heralding the dawning of a new day and promising changes to come with this new hire?

This is precisely where we find ourselves in 2018, with apparel sector commitments to reduce their environmental impact. Bold commitments to Greenpeace to discharge zero toxic chemicals by 2020. Commitments to “We Mean Business” to rapidly reduce carbon emissions at levels consistent with the Paris agreement. Pledges to WWF to sharply reduce water use in areas suffering from extreme drought. To NRDC to participate in our Clean by Design program. Turns out that most of these companies don’t even have a list of the factories that make their stuff.

Definitely time has never been riper for all involved to learn #whomademyclothes—most notably the multi-national apparel retailers and brands who make them.