No brand today should be “shocked and appalled” at what happens in its own supply chain, as fast fashion brand Boohoo recently claimed to be.
To know so little about the sourcing, processes and practices involved in creating a product you sell should be a crime itself.
Tales of UK-based sweat shops and modern slavery have, unfortunately, been making national headlines for years. But 2020 marks a watershed moment, with the story now set against the backdrop of a devastating health pandemic, a global recession, and surge in activism around the world.
In this case, as in so many other areas, change will almost certainly be driven by commercial risk. We have already seen the impact on share prices as shareholders dump stock in fallen brands like Boohoo. As shoppers become even more aware about the impact of their purchasing decisions, this is only set to continue.
Increasingly, consumers are looking beyond the price of an item to make their decisions. According to 2018 research from Edelman, some 60 per cent of shoppers say a brand should make it easier to see its values and position on important issues at the point of sale. More and more, they are voting with their wallets to reward brands that put responsibility — whether social or environment — at the heart of their business, from Tony Chocolonely challenging the whole cocoa industry with slave-free chocolates, to Oatly disrupting the milk market with plant-based alternatives.
The food industry, in many ways, has led the charge. Fairtrade coffee brands like Café Direct, organic producers like Yeo Valley, and free-range eggs from suppliers like Waitrose have become household staples, bringing higher standards to our kitchen tables.
But while our meals may suggest a more conscious tone, with a 20 per cent rise in sales of more “sustainable” fast-moving consumer goods (Nielsen, 2019), our relationship with fashion is on a different trajectory. Fast fashion, which is one of the most damaging industries on the planet, has grown by 21 per cent over the past three years.
As many businesses are pausing and pivoting in the wake of the pandemic, we need to consider the risks posed to global brands by opaque and unethical supply chains, and ask what measures we can demand they implement to protect both people and planet in the future.
Top of the agenda should be a solid update to the Modern Slavery Act. Businesses must get to grips with what is happening in their supply chains — and the UK government must hold them to account for violations both at home and abroad.
Yet for real change, we have to see a radical shift towards public transparency and accountability, underpinned by evidence. The onus is on the businesses themselves to do this. There is no time for greenwashing — brands must move beyond marketing hype and use data to demonstrate their impact.
This means getting ahead of scandals by mapping your supply chain, being transparent about what you do know and honest about what you don’t. Look at companies like Unilever and Napolina, which have come a long way and are opening up about their suppliers and impact.
There is a common misconception that being open is too high risk, but Boohoo’s failures show that not prioritising transparency can be an even bigger liability. Businesses should take note and change tack. Only then will we see behaviour change — when our expectation for companies we buy from is not ignorance and opacity, but transparency we can trust.
Main image credit: Getty