Some of the world's most popular clothing brands, including Forever 21 and Michael Kors, have been slammed by a new report for not being upfront with customers about their supply chains.
And high-end, expensive clothing companies including Prada, Fendi and Hermes are among the worst offenders, with Chanel coming in dead last, according to the report that ranks clothing brands on transparency.
The report by advocacy organizations Fashion Revolution and Ethical Consumer ranked 40 major fashion companies on how transparent they are about their supply chains, and found that 40 percent of the companies analyzed don't appear to have systems to monitor whether they are compliant with labor standards.
Nearly three years after the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh that killed more than a thousand people and injured 2,500 more, the report found it's still difficult for consumers — and even fashion companies — to answer the question, "who made my clothes?"
In the lead-up to the April 24 anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the organizations are encouraging consumers to ask clothing companies about every aspect of their supply chains, from where the raw materials came from to who stitched the clothing together.
"Lack of transparency costs lives," the report states. "It is impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected and that environmental practices are sound without knowing where their products are made, who is making them and under what conditions."
'Lack of transparency costs lives.'
The highest ranked company was Levi Strauss & Co, followed closely by Inditex, which owns Zara, and H&M, which owns Cheap Monday and & Other Stories. But while the report commended these companies for their transparency, it cautioned that a high transparency rating doesn't mean clothing isn't made in dangerous conditions.
In H&M's case, the high transparency ranking comes on the heels of another advocacy group slamming the company for "severe delays" in building repairs in 32 Bangladesh factories that supply its clothing. Several advocacy groups criticised H&M for its lack of progress in safety improvements after it endorsed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally-binding agreement that more than 100 brands signed onto in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse.
"More than two and a half years into the process of the Bangladesh Accord, every single mandated repair at H&M's suppliers should have already been completed," Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium said in a statement. "However, the sad reality is that hardly any of H&M's supplier factories in Bangladesh can be called safe."
VICE News reached out to a handful of the brands ranked on the transparency index to ask them if the report was fair and whether they would tell us about their supply chains. Only H&M and Lululemon sent responses.
H&M spokesperson Ulrika Isaksson welcomed the findings of the transparency index, and said, "We believed transparency is key to advancing our sustainability and we work hard to further increase the transparency across our entire value chain."
As for the Bangladesh Accord on factory safety, Isaksson said "H&M's suppliers have now reported that all locking features as well as all collapsible, sliding or rolling shutter doors have been removed at all factories." The work is a complement to the mandatory requirements including emergency exits, emergency lights, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, evacuation plans and regular evacuation drills, they said.
Lululemon, which ranked in the low-to-middle range on the transparency index, pointed VICE News to the sustainability section of their website, which says the company is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint, water use and the amount of waste it produces, but does not state where their products are made.
Fashion supply chains are often extremely complex, and many brands don't own the factories where their clothes are made, the report states.
"Some brands may work with thousands of factories at any given time — and that is just the facilities that cut, sew and assemble our garments, but there are also further facilities down the chain that dye, weave and finish materials and farms that grow fibres too."
'Many companies do not really know where their clothes are being made. '
"Many companies do not really know where their clothes are being made. The vast majority of today's fashion brands do not own their manufacturing facilities, making it difficult to monitor or control working conditions through the supply chain."
Fashion Revolution said it sent a questionnaire to 40 fashion companies, but only 10 filled it out. The other 30 companies received scores based on information they made public.
"For those companies that did not reply, it is impossible for our researchers to know anything beyond what they are communicating publicly online," the report stated. "Therefore these companies may have received lower scores while companies who did fill out the questionnaire had the opportunity to tell us more and thus potentially score higher."
Though the report's release was timed ahead of the anniversary of the collapse of a factory where Loblaws, a Canadian grocery giant, made its Joe Fresh clothing, neither Loblaws nor Joe Fresh were mentioned in the report. Fashion Revolution told VICE News they selected fashion brands based on annual turnover.
Fashion Revolution says it hopes to expand the number of brands surveyed to 100 next year, and invites any fashion brand or retailer with at least UK $36 million in annual turnover to opt into the transparency index for 2017.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont