Open data is on trend this London Fashion Week

Fri Sep 14, 2018

Collecting and sharing data along the fashion supply chain can help reduce unethical practices in the fashion industry

Collecting and sharing data along the fashion supply chain can help reduce unethical practices in the fashion industry. Waverley Coquet talks to Richard Mills, Director of Research at the WikiRate project, to find out how.

By Waverly Coquet in collaboration with Steffica Warwick

This week is London Fashion Week, and fashionistas around the world will be flocking to England’s capital to see exclusive collections from London’s elite designers like Burberry and Victoria Beckham. But among the glitz and glamour, one thing that will not be on parade is the darker side of the fashion business: the poor labour conditions, child labour and environmental degradation which have come hand in hand with the rise of ‘fast fashion’.

To prevent such abuses and hold the fashion industry to account, activists have been calling for more transparency around the fashion supply chain. This would inform investors of where their money is going, equip manufacturing workers to push for better working conditions and help consumers make more informed, ethical purchasing decisions.

I recently attended one such gathering of activists called Open Data Sprint: Investor Relations in the Fashion Industry – a London event hosted by Clean Clothes Campaign, OpenCorporates and WikiRate. Over the course of an afternoon, researchers and data enthusiasts worked together to map investor-to-company relations in the fashion industry, focussing on fashion giants HANES, ASOS, GAP, and H&M.

After the event I had an opportunity to speak with Richard Mills, Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and Director of Research for the WikiRate Project – an open and collaborative tool for asking and answering questions about corporate impacts. Richard explained how increased transparency in the fashion industry can help consumers make better buying decisions, empower workers to lobby for better working conditions and give investors more visibility across the supply chain.

How can we make better decisions when buying ethically produced products?

There is quite a lot of data out there already about the socio-environmental impacts of fashion brands, but there are also questions about its reliability and whether it reflects what we really need to know to make informed decisions. WikiRate strives for more and better data, and better understanding of what it all means, so that consumers and other stakeholders can make more informed decisions.

Using this kind of data to inform a decision, or even just talking about it, increases the visibility and impact of available information. Engaging with the available data  sends a signal to the industry that consumers prefer brands that can be transparent about their impact and still look good, it establishes a potential benefit or reward for companies that take this approach.

Looking into a brand’s performance can involve searching for news about them, reading their annual report, or using services such as the ‘Good On You‘ app or the Fashion Transparency Index which review and rank the biggest fashion brands according to their social and environmental practices and impact. WikiRate is a place to gather and share insights from all of these sources, and put them together to create a more comprehensive account of how companies measure up, which makes the information useful to consumers and investors alike.

How can making the supply chain more transparent help investors?

When investors invest in a large corporation’s shares, the impact of their money can be felt around the world. A company’s supply chain determines where that money goes. It’s policies and how well they are enforced determine whether that money has positive or negative impacts in the places it touches.

Major fashion brands are the most powerful actors in their networks, and as such they bear some responsibility for what happens in their supply chains. They define what their suppliers need to do to be successful, how much they get paid for delivering how many products and when. They can also define what those suppliers must deliver to their workers, in terms of conditions and pay, because success for supplier companies means securing orders with large brands. Fashion brands shape what the garment industries in the countries they source from look like.

Many investors have realised that they bear some of the risk if the companies they are invested in are subject to legal action or reputational damage due to problems in their supply chain. Some investors take this further and use their position to push companies to be better social actors.

The more obscure a company’s supply chain is, the higher the potential risk for an investor in being associated with abuses and bad practices such as forced labour, child labour, and environmental degradation like toxic waste disposal or deforestation.

There is demand for better information about companies’ supply chains. If investors are equipped with robust data on companies’ performance, there is every reason to believe they will make use of it.

At WikiRate, our projects aim to tackle this in three ways:

  • Standardising and making accessible records of which companies have named the suppliers they work with, which have not disclosed their suppliers or which only made a partial disclosure.
  • Analysing and listing companies’ supply chain policies and approach to monitoring and enforcement (e.g. Modern Slavery Act project) – because the conditions imposed on suppliers matter just as much as who those suppliers are.
  • Gathering data on working conditions directly from workers or their representatives – because knowing the identity and location of a supplier is just the first step, we need reliable information about what it’s like to work for those companies.

And how can opening supply-chain data improve working conditions for people in the industry?

Opening supply-chain data – from which investors can deduce information – amplifies the experiences of the workers in relation to the brands they indirectly work for. Knowing who and where those workers are is a first step towards more accurately representing their part in the story of where our goods come from.

The collaboration between the Clean Clothes Campaign and WikiRate on the ccc widget is using this kind of data to empower workers in the global garment industry. At a basic level, this widget is about informing workers who their employer supplies, and in whose supply chain they work.

From there, workers can access all the information we have about those companies.If a brand has a supply chain code of conduct that sets certain requirements of their suppliers, workers may be the ultimate beneficiaries of those policies, and are best placed to know whether the supplier company is meeting its obligations. If communications between a brand and the workers in its supply chain all flow through the management of the supplier companies, that can be exploited.

This information has the potential to help workers create leverage in negotiations and getting  access to remedy. The more connections we can make, the more we can build power along the supply chain. It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about being transparent and creating opportunities for dialogue and accountability, to create a more accurate picture of what is going on and a better baseline for the people involved.

The more companies and investors that share data openly in a structured way, the more workers, citizens, companies and investors themselves will be able to use that information to improve the global garment industry.

What can we do to help?

Help us promote engagement with this data so that it can be better leveraged for good. For WikiRate, the open data repository is just the foundation. What matters is what people build on that foundation.

Our role is to develop the infrastructure and tools to collect data and collectively make sense of it. We are always looking for collaborators or community members who have a view on what the important questions are, and who needs to see the answers for them to make a difference.

With companies disclosing more now than ever before, there is an opportunity to show that there is demand for such disclosures. Engaging with the available data to good effect puts us in a stronger position to ask for further disclosures.

Defining what companies report on, or what questions they answer, can also shape their behaviour. Right now, a limited set of actors are involved in shaping those requests, and the outcomes of those closed processes will shape what sustainability looks like and how it should be measured.

There should be a role for a big open public in that process, but we will have to earn it by showing that we can make effective use of this kind of data. WikiRate is intended to be a place where that can happen, where we can collectively get better at figuring out what corporate sustainability looks like, how to identify and remedy its opposite.

If you would like to talk these issues through with us at the ODI, you can reach us at [email protected].

Image: London Fashion Week by Garry Knight on Flickr (cc by 2.0)