To achieve full transparency, brands must be open about their supply chains to keep consumers informed. A dialogue between Eco Age’s founder Livia Firth and Auret Van Heerden
Livia Firth in conversation with Auret van Heerden
Consumers want to support companies that invest in fair labor, ethical resourcing, and sustainable environmental practices. While some fashion brands are starting to practice transparency, many still lag behind. Their supply chains obscured behind layers of decentralization, in the fast fashion industry in particular. In 2009, Livia Firth founded Eco Age. A consultancy firm that assists brands in the improvement of the sustainability and transparency of their supply chains.
One of Firth’s projects, the Green Carpet Challenge, encourages celebrities to wear ethical designs to high profile events; raising the profiles of sustainable brands. For over forty years, labor rights expert Auret Van Heerden, former president of the Fair Labor Association, has been working to address the issues of global supply chains. Including apparel, electronics, and food. Van Heerden is the founder and CEO of Equiception, a consulting company that specializes in sustainable supply chains; corporate social responsibility; and workers’ rights; as well as the co-founder of Ripple Research. An AI-for-Good advisory firm that works to make data essential to the ways businesses, organizations, and policymakers engage their audiences.
Legistlation to regulate living wages in the fashion industry
Livia firth: In 2015, when I was in Bangladesh working on a living wage project, Nazma Akter, a garment worker, told me that nothing would have ever changed in the fashion industry until there was a transnational agreement on wages. Without this, brands would continue to hop from one country to another in pursuit of the cheapest possible production line. When I came back to London, I met with a group of female lawyers to ask if they thought it was possible, or even legal, to establish the legality of a living wage. In 2017, the project launched and last year we submitted the first proposal of a legistlation that would regulate living wages in the fashion industry to the EU Parliament.
Auret van Heerden: I joke that I live in paradise, but I work in hell. Most years, I would make fifty trips to different countries to investigate or mediate human rights disputes. Most of this time is spent on the road in complicated parts of the world. With the pandemic, I was unable to travel. We had to figure out how to do it virtually, but having done this for forty years, I have quite a well-developed network. I was able to find people on the ground who could go in and conduct the interviews and information gathering for me.
That is when we decided to increase our use of big data techniques, because now if you’re looking for information on human rights situations it’s all on social media. People are expressing themselves nonstop. Their lived experiences are on social media. We figured out a technology that allows us to survey this, so we can see what people were saying. It has turned out to be a vital source of data about lived experiences; be it about COVID, climate change, or sexual harassment. We’ve started a new company, Ripple Research, that specializes in AI tools, big data techniques, and information gathering.
The improvement of the working conditions of the most vulnerable people in the fashion supply chain
KN: Both of you have consulted with brands to help them grow by improving the sustainability and transparency of their supply chains. What are some of your success stories, where the working conditions of the most vulnerable people in the supply chain have been improved?
LF: One of our success stories comes from Chopard, the luxury jewelry and watch company. We started working with the company in 2013 to transform their gold supply chain, an untraceable material. Not even banks know where their gold comes from. We unpacked the supply chain and partnered with the Alliance for Responsible Mining to help the company reach fairmined certifications. In only five years we helped them reach 100% ethical gold supply chain.
AvH: I could point to a wholesale sporting goods discount store. They sell price competitive volumes, but it is a private company so the owner can take a long-term view and have certain family values. He wanted to have long-term relationships with his suppliers, of five years or more and share expertise and know-how. That way, the supplier could pay a living wage and benefits but still be profitable.
Fashion: towards a revolution of the business and zero waste production
KN: Is it possible for fast fashion brands to invest in their supply chains like this, or is the sector unsustainable?
AvH: These brands set out to develop a new pair of jeans for spring 2023, but who knows what people will want next year. They take a guess, develop it, and then order a gazillion pieces. The product development cycle is twelve months. By the time the pieces are delivered, their chances of hitting the mark are slim to none. Often they end up not being what people want, so they have to discount them. This is what happens with most of the clothes in the U.S.
This model, whereby brands produce large quantities and take a guess on what people will want next year, results in masses of discounted and wasted products. Because they are discounted, people don’t value them. They wear them two or three times and throw them away. In the future, more clothing items will be made to order soon. Amazon has bought dozens of brands and is likely to emerge as a major force in the fast fashion business. They will make and deliver fast fashion on demand, revolutionizing the business and producing zero waste. If people want next day delivery, they’ll have to locate production close to demand, and more of the process will be automated. Amazon will rely on digitalization to cut weeks off the production process.
Transparency is not only about carbon emissions…
KN: Last year, Eco-Age held the Renaissance Awards to spotlight the work of young, internation- al leaders working on sustainable solutions and you awarded NFTs as prizes. Why did you choose to use NFTs?
LF: Because we wanted to create a new way to support these young leaders and NFTs, if produced correctly, can have a huge value for the rest of their lives. NFTs are like pieces of art that you can keep on selling along the blockchain and every time they’re sold, they grow in value; with the original artist receiving a license fee. With the Renaissance awards, we made sure to work with an ethical miner.
AvH: Today, there are already 2.7 billion people – forty percent of the world’s population – playing 3D immersive games. We will continue to see more of our devices become connected: right now, our smart fridges, smartphones,and our smart front doors, are transmitting data but to different companies. The metaverse will bring much more of that together. The second thing that we need to remind ourselves of is that, when people talk about the metaverse not having the same environmental footprint, that’s nonsense. Many minerals and metals go into making our connected devices. These must be processed in a physical workshop. There are environmental and labor rights issues all the way along the supply chain. The technology that the metaverse requires has a heavy sustainability footprint and could drive increasing inequality.
…but also about social justice
LF: Transparency in the fashion industry is not only about carbon emissions but also about social justice. Thinking of the transparency reports that have been published by brands or organizations, almost all focus on environmental issues, while failing to account for labor conditions. How do we frame this conversation on transparency in the right way? What these brands achieve through their websites is not transparency, it’s greenwashing. We need to disclose information about the working conditions of the people making their products.
AvH: Many indicators only track the commitments made by brands, not the actions or outcomes. This doesn’t give people agency – there’s nothing you can do with this information. How do we make key information available in a way that gives investors, regulators and consumers agency to make decisions based on the data? Brands can make things up and cherry pick the data to mislead people. We need a taxonomy and agreed metrics.
Co-founder and Creative Director of Eco-Age – the leading consulting and creative agency specialized in integrated sustainability, and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge (GCC).
Auret van Heerden
Labour rights expert and founder and CEO of Equiception. A consultancy that specialises in sustainable supply chains, corporate social responsibility and workers’ rights.