Transparency has been a buzzword in fashion for what feels like a long time. Perhaps the pernicious influence of Silicon Valley is to blame, or a millennial obsession with all things light, airy, and open-concept. We like transparency because it promises an honest, direct connection with our products. Most importantly, when a company describes itself as transparent, consumers get the impression that they are making informed and therefore more sustainable choices about what they buy. And since supply chain transparency isn’t mandated by governments or regulated by international law, something is better than nothing, right?
The truth, however, is that most fashion brands’ claims about transparency are at best well-meaning but incomplete. At worst, they serve as smokescreens for truly bad labor conditions and massive environmental impact. Even Everlane, the fashion company perhaps most responsible for ushering in the transparency trend in the US, came under fire in 2020 for mistreating its customer support team and busting a nascent employee union. In essence, transparency refers to a claim a company makes about their supply chain; traceability means they can prove it.
Before your latest purchase arrives at your door, it passes through dozens of steps in production, performed in different factories—and often in multiple countries. Brands will know the factory where their clothes are cut and sewn (assuming this work isn’t subcontracted) and perhaps the mill where their fabric was woven—but learning where the yarn was spun and dyed, where the cotton or wool was grown, or where the buttons, tags, and thread came from are thornier, harder-to-answer questions.
To give you a sense of how little most fashion brands know, 101 out of 250 brands surveyed in Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Transparency Index made public their first tier manufacturers, but only 18 out of 250 had information on some of their raw material suppliers. The deeper you go in the supply chain (which is really more of a web), the harder it is to verify where something comes from, and the easier it is to overlook problems. While the biggest fashion brands are struggling to account for how exactly their stuff is made every time a new sweatshop collapse is connected to their products, there are companies trying to get it right. A few upstarts are dedicating themselves to understanding what’s in their clothes and making that information accessible to consumers.
“People don’t even understand how a shirt or a pair of pants is made—it’s just magic and it’s ubiquitous,” said Amendi Co-founder Corey Spencer. Based in New York and Gothenburg, Sweden, Amendi was conceived as a fully traceable denim brand. That means every piece of their supply chain has been accounted for and vetted to the highest standards. As a baseline, all Amendi products are made with organic cotton (GOTS certified) and are free of harmful chemicals (OEKO Tex Standard 100). But instead of relying on these certifications and slapping the word ‘sustainable’ on their gear, the brand has focused on developing personal relationships with every supplier and manufacturer who touches their jeans.
This is not the usual way of doing business in fashion. A typical giant, like Zara, releases hundreds of new products every few weeks. “You have this huge system where people are sourcing from everywhere, just trying to get the lowest price possible to meet whatever arbitrary design or quality control standards,” Spencer said. These levels of turnover and volume create constant pressure on suppliers to cut corners, and make it impossible for brands to actually verify what’s happening in their supply chains. Brands can contract pricey third-party auditors to make inspections on their behalf, but they are not always incentivized to uncover wrongdoing. The result is a system based on guesses and half-truths.
Amendi’s solution is a simple one: by keeping their supply chain tight, offering an edited range of core products, and knowing the people who make their stuff, they can actually control and verify every part of the manufacturing process. “Within a three hour drive from Istanbul, we can make an entire collection of clothing, including raw materials,” Spencer said. A simple “Fabrication Facts” tag is included with every Amendi product, formatted like a nutrition label on the back of a box of cereal, so you know exactly what’s in each pair.
Other companies are focusing on the effects of making a product by going beyond their supply chain to calculate their environmental impact. Stockholm-based Asket is a traceability leader that began its life in 2015 as yet another transparent, minimalist, direct-to-consumer brand. Founded by Jakob Dworsky and Augustus Bard Bringéus, Asket (which means “ascetic” in Swedish) was created with the now-common aim of delivering premium basics at a lower price. This concept meant they needed to prove to customers that their 30 euro T-shirts were actually just as good as luxury, 80 euro versions. Showing off their factories was an obvious first step, which led them to the mills where the fabric was woven, which in turn began to raise questions about the environmental impact of what they were making and selling.
“We can talk about not just what it costs, but also what it costs the planet,” said Dworsky. “So that you understand that what you buy is not going to come out of thin air.”
This information is available to consumers in an “Impact Receipt” that details the CO2, water, and energy usage of Asket’s most popular products. To calculate these figures, suppliers have to answer a lot of questions: What are their energy bills? How much water is consumed in the dyeing process? Exactly which salts and sulfates do they use to keep the fabric colorfast? These questions produce an insane amount of information, which is why most companies throw up their hands and just use generic, industry-wide data—e.g. the “average” energy consumption of knitting a cotton T-shirt. But knitting a T-shirt in China, where about half the energy grid is powered by coal, produces a lot more CO2 than knitting one somewhere like Portugal. Asket is committed to capturing those fine-grained distinctions.
“It’s a huge project,” Bringéus admitted, and one they will always struggle to completely implement, even with their collaboration with Research Institutes of Sweden. “It is nearly impossible to get our Australian sheep farm to give us information on energy and water consumption,” he explained. “They don’t know—they’re shepherds, basically.”
Some shepherds, however, have already started measuring this data, and Sheep Inc. is betting that their carbon negative, fully traceable merino wool sweaters will change the knitwear game. Founders Edzard Van Der Wyck and Michael Wessely run the company from London, while the sheep are raised on the other side of the world on regenerative farms in New Zealand. (Climatology professor Mark Maslin audits their biodiversity investment strategy.) “Regenerative” is a term increasingly used to describe cutting-edge agriculture practices that go way beyond organic, using crop rotations, carbon sequestering, and other techniques to actually put more into the planet than what they take out. After the sheep are humanely sheared, the merino fibers are spun in Italy, and ultimately knit into sweaters in Spain on 3D knitting machines.
What makes Sheep Inc.’s traceability efforts truly unique is that each sweater comes with a removable tracking tag in the hem. When you scan the QR code on the back of the tag, the brand’s software leads you to a page about your very own sheep whose wool helped make your sweater. “People’s eyes glaze over the second you start to regurgitate facts about where stuff has come from,” Van Der Wyck told me. “People are interested in storytelling.”
I can confirm that because I copped one. My sheep was named Timo! When I checked up on his GPS coordinates via Sheep Inc.’s mobile app, he was somewhere in Middlehurst Pastoral ranch’s “Top Tone” padoc, overlooking the majestic Lake Hawea. As I write this, I imagine Timo there now, chomping grass in the shadow of Mount Burke, fluffy again after a cold winter, his face placid as he lets out a lazy baa.
Sheep Inc.’s adoption idea is technically more metaphorical than practical. Timo was one of many sheep on the farm who contributed the wool that wound up in my plush merino crewneck. But the emotional appeal of connecting with my clothes, rather than just abstractly knowing about them, was intriguing. It also felt slightly absurd. The whole experience reminded me of the Portlandia sketch where two eco-conscious diners consider ordering a chicken at a restaurant, but first need to be reassured by the waitress that it will meet their high ethical standards.
“He looks like a happy little guy, runs around,” Fred Armisen’s character says while reviewing a dossier on the chicken, whose name is Colin. “A lot of friends?” he asks. “Putting his little wing around another one and kinda like, palling around?”
When it comes to sustainability and traceability, the parallels between the food and fashion industries are obvious. The finicky foodies of Portlandia are now more than ten years old. Their fixation on the hyper-specific living conditions of a single chicken is still ridiculous, but their beliefs about the importance of local and organic agriculture have certainly caught on in the intervening decade. Your grandpa is eating farmer’s market kale chips, and your meathead gym bro has switched from factory farm whey to vegan protein powder.
It’s not so hard to imagine the same thing happening with clothes, even if the time and expertise required to track this information is a big ask for even the most idealistic brands. There is some hope on the horizon. Companies like FibreTrace are developing high-tech ceramic dust that can be used like barcodes to track textiles—via the blockchain, because why not—through the entire production process, and the non-profit FiberShed has been developing “backyard” projects with The North Face to create gear made from hyper-local materials. But for the fashion supply chain to follow the food industry, consumers will have to be more than curious about where their clothes come from. We will need to care—and maybe meeting the Timos who make our sweaters can help with that.