Transparency is a bit of a buzz word these days, but what I mean by it is not much more complicated than honesty. And any good relationship depends on honesty and trust, no? When we patronize any business, we engage in a relationship with them and imply that we trust that brand to meet our standards, whatever they are.
Transparency Starts With Information
The whole point of honesty is to empower the individual. The whole point of transparency is to empower the consumer. Consumers deserve to have enough information to discern whether they feel comfortable patronizing any given business. This is the principle that underlies nutritional labels: the ingredients and nutritional content of a food are listed so that a consumer can evaluate the information provided and then decide whether or not to put this food in their body. Information, in the form of a nutrition label, enables an individual to make an informed decision.
Californian Companies Leading The Way
However, food labels and even beauty products are regulated in a way that apparel items are not, so finding out about the coat you have your eye on might require a bit more research than looking at the back of a cereal box. Some clothing brands, however, are taking it upon themselves to provide customers with direct information on the textile factories they source from, photographs of the inside of the sewing rooms where their garments are stitched together, and even the carbon footprint of each individual piece of clothing.
The Los Angeles-based company Reformation is one such company that leads the way by disclosing the environmental impact of each of their clothing pieces. They have created a system called the RefScale that their customers can use for quickly comparing garments and their ecological tolls. According to the Reformation website:
“The RefScale tracks our environmental footprint by adding up the pounds of carbon dioxide emitted and gallons of water we use, and pounds of waste we generate. Then we calculate how Reformation’s products help reduce these impacts compared with most clothes bought in the US. We share this information on every product page of our website and tell you exactly what impact each garment has on the environment. This way we all get to see the total cost of fashion so you can make empowered choices, and we can keep creating better solutions when it comes to making clothes.”
Everlane, a San Francisco-based e-commerce brand, is yet another major player including transparency in their business model. Everlane lists the factories that they use worldwide and every garment in their online shop links to a web page about the factory where it was made. On each factory page, Everlane describes the factory’s owner, founding date, specialization, ethical standards, and even the current time and temperature in that part of the world.
In fact, Everlane inspired me, a San Francisco fashion business owner myself, to adopt one of its radical methods: transparent pricing. Everlane and my company The Keep Collection both insist on disclosing the actual cost of production of each of our garments alongside the retail price. These are held up for comparison and as a window into company operations. At Keep, we abide by the “more you know” principle and extend our policy of transparency to all stages of our creative process in order to get our consumers involved in and excited about the stories behind the products we make.
“Our thinking goes: When you care about something, it becomes better, you become better and everyone else becomes a little better for it, So if you could, wouldn’t you choose to care about the shirt you’re wearing? wouldn’t you want to care about the people who made it? wouldn’t you opt to care about the ideas & the effort that went into producing it? But you can’t really care unless you know, so we want to tell you everything that we do to give you the chance to know & to care about us.”
But Isn’t It All Just Advertising?
As we know, fashion is a big business, and trusting a brand is more complicated than meeting a person, appreciating their smile, approving of their body language and feeling secure (and secure in your judgments!). Businesses are around to turn a profit. To place your trust a brand or a company is to trust advertising campaigns that were specifically engineered to manipulate human psychology and create an artificial need in us that can be satisfied by buying a brand’s product. It’s wise to be wary of any fashion brand that tries to sell you something or tells you that you need any one thing in particular.
But if we’re being wary of all marketing material, what else is left? What information do we have to go on? Oftentimes, not much, but sometimes in the basement of a website you will find something like a mission statement, i.e. the perfect opportunity to hold a brand up to its own standards. This is where your own discernment comes into play. It is after all a bit like casting a vote for an elected official: the candidate details their priorities, & we, the public, hold up their histories and their ideals and eventually decide whether we believe in them. As Anne Lappé wisely said, “every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want,” and to an extent, every vote is a tiny leap of faith. Solid business and solid ethics are not mutually exclusive, but it is on us to find the intersection.
Susannah Emerson is the creator of The Keep Collection, a clothing line & online journal that takes the concept of "Slow Fashion" one step further by releasing all our items as an edition: i.e. one part an exquisite limited-edition clothing piece & one part the piece's full backstory as told through art, prose, poetry, video, interviews & beyond. Susannah is passionate about sharing the creative process with readers, customers & collaborators. She spends most of her time brainstorming how to run a business like an art project & practicing handstands.