Why True Labelling is the Key to Transparency

While we are used to seeing care labels on our clothes, further information about how and where pieces are made is much harder to come by.  Elizabeth Bennett explores the issues with current labelling and examines some of the brands who are leading the way for greater transparency in the fashion industry.

For anyone trying to make sustainable fashion choices, the biggest question is normally: who made my clothes? A close second: how were they made? Seemingly not a tall order but often information that’s near-impossible to gleam. It’s not as easy as checking a label and instead calls for digging deep on a brand’s website or reaching out by email and social media.

Unlike an industry like food, where transparent labelling is a legal requirement, within fashion it’s much murkier. At present in the UK, clothes have to be labelled with four things: care information (how the item is washed), fibre content (material percentages), country of origin (where it was made) and flammability. No additional info about the manufacturing process or environmental impact is needed.

However, a number of brands in the sustainable space are trying to change this. Introducing labels that detail carbon footprint, traceability and breakdown of pricing. After all, it is only via full transparency that consumers can start to see the damage to people and planet done by their clothes and change their purchasing habits accordingly.

One brand leading the way is AllBirds, a San Francisco-based sustainable footwear and clothing company. They are the first brand of their kind to comprehensively label each product with its carbon footprint. “We recognized the need to give consumers an objective measure for the true impact of the products they wear and buy,” Hana Kajimura ,head of sustainability at Allbirds, commented. The number is calculated using a Life Cycle Assessment tool, verified by a third party and uses key details like material composition and energy consumption as well as manufacturing, use phase, and end of life disposal of a product.

For AllBirds, displaying the carbon footprint is the first step in assessing the sustainable credentials of a clothing item. “Our hope is that this singular metric will be able to provide clarity for consumers and will be adopted more broadly in the fashion industry and beyond, to help our customer develop a carbon consciousness. We want to do our part to ensure that one day soon, shoppers will compare carbon numbers like they do nutritional labels in grocery aisles,” Kajimura said.

Lille-based womenswear brand Maison Cleo, have taken a different approach: including a breakdown of costs to demystify the production process. Each order comes with a receipt showcasing how the final cost was calculated, including the cost of fabric, labour, marketing, tax and margin figures. Founder Marie Dewet wanted to highlight how affordable it could be to work in this slower and sustainable way (they use upcycled fabrics and only make pieces to order). “I wanted to show made-in-France clothes could be cheaper than what we are used to seeing in this market with big brands,” Dewet told us.

Subsequently this transparency exposes the entrenched problems with cheap fast fashion. “It’s only when showing this kind of breakdown that people can realise what fast fashion prices mean, and will want to know more about these practices. Fast fashion prices are completely impossible and obviously hide very bad things,” Dewet said. 

While the size of labels is a practical barrier for some brands looking to display more detailed information, QR codes can provide an alternative. Especially considering the technology has become so ubiquitous since the start of the pandemic. For instance, UK-based Where Does It Come From? – an ethical clothing social enterprise – has utilised QR codes on labels to paint a bigger picture about where their items come from.

Customers scan the code on the clothing label which directs them to photos, videos and interviews with people along the supply chain. “For brands moving to full transparency may seem like baring our souls and non-intuitive when trying to sell a product, but I believe that people connect more with something when they know the story. There’s not many people who really don’t care when they are faced with the fact that their choices are causing other people in the world to suffer and our planet to die,” founder Jo Salter explained. 

Sheep Inc, a London-based sustainable knitwear company, has introduced a similar system. Inspired by the tags farmers use to keep tabs on their flocks of sheep, they sew a NFC (near-field communication) tag into each of their sweaters. These digital provenance tags when scanned on a smartphone reveal the unique provenance of each sweater and its environmental impact.  It also connects customers with their associated sheep adoptee that lives on the same New Zealand farm where the wool used to make the sweater came from.

These innovative approaches hold hope. If brands and businesses can come together to share these resources, better labelling will become industry standard. Subsequently, there will be greater transparency, exposure of bad practise and a fairer fashion industry. As Kajimura noted: “We need to harness competition and transparency in order to achieve the kind of monumental change required to tackle climate change.”