I do my best to make purchases from more sustainable companies, but I can’t do all the research myself. I rely on choosing retailers that I hope, based on their statements, are doing their own investigation into their supply chains; however, research by Fraser and van der Ven (2022) indicates that fast fashion supply chains may be too complicated, fragmented, and opaque for anyone to easily keep track of what’s happening.
Fast fashion is one of the highest polluting industries worldwide. There are high greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and water pollution from the production of clothes and then huge amounts of waste produced from excess clothing that doesn’t sell, clothing that does sell but only gets worn a handful of times either from changing trends or because poor quality items just don’t last. In addition to the environmental costs, there are huge social concerns including exploitation and poor safety for workers.
There are some companies that are more transparent than others. In their research, Fraser and van der Ven compared four companies — H&M, Gap Inc., Inditex, and Fast Retailing. They found that H&M was the most transparent and they had multiple different factors that contributed to why they were more transparent. The contributing factors were reputation risk from scandals, the policies and norms of the country where the company operates, and the CEO’s values.
What was interesting from the research is that the other companies might have had one or two of these factors but that wasn’t enough to trigger increased transparency. It took all of the factors to cause a change.
Transparency doesn’t equal better practices of course. You can still mistreat workers and pollute the environment when you are being transparent. But, it is much easier for other companies and consumers to make decisions if they have easy access to the information they need. And if people start to look at the available information and make decisions based on it, then companies might feel more pressure to change.
Right now, making choices on clothes as an individual is pretty challenging. Thanks to the general lack of transparency in companies it’s hard to find the information if you do have time to look for it. As a result, one of the few choices that is easier to make as a consumer is to buy clothes that you’re willing to wear many times and are good enough quality to last. But of course, those clothes typically bring in another issue, they cost more at the start which means they aren’t accessible for some. So even here there aren’t easy decisions.