It was April 23rd, 2013, when garment workers evacuated the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when cracks appeared in the building’s foundational walls.
An inspection followed, and according to the building’s owner, everything was safe. The owner demanded everyone return to work promptly.
The following day, workers were apprehensive about entering the building when the workday began. Management threatened their jobs if they didn’t.
So, of course, they went in.
Not long after morning shifts began, the building collapsed.
3,122 workers were inside the building at the time of its collapse. It took 90 seconds for the eight-story building to fall. 1,134 people were killed, and many more were injured.
Bangladeshis protested and grieved the many lives lost. Outrage and a wave of activism ignited across the fashion industry.
People wanted accountability, sure. But even before that, transparency.
Rescue workers had to dig through the rubble at Rana Plaza and find logos on clothing labels to see which international brands worked with the garment factories involved.
What we don’t know doesn’t hurt us (or our purchasing habits, rather)—but it might be hurting someone else.
This is why complete and radical transparency in business must become the norm.
What, or more accurately who, goes unseen, goes unprotected.
But of course, to get to transparency, we should understand further exactly what it means of business. Let’s start there.
What Does it Mean to be “Transparent” in Business?
Eric Henry, President of TS Designs, a large volume screen printing company based in Burlington, N.C., will tell you exactly where the cotton for his t-shirts was grown, who the farmer is who grew it, and who continued to touch what became your t-shirt along the way.
I asked Eric what “transparency” looks like for him in his business, and he said:
“I will introduce you to everyone in the supply chain; the farmer, the ginner, the spinner, the knitter, the finisher, the cut and sew. I’ll give you a picture, phone number, physical address, and email. [And] that should be the first requirement if you sell products in this country. It’s a check and balance.”
So, as it seems by Eric’s explanation, being “transparent” in business means committing to reveal all. And by his assessment, it should be table stakes for being in business, to begin with (I happen to agree).
And as you’ll see in further examples I share below, many businesses (like Eric’s) already understand and believe secrecy can no longer be justified as a competitive advantage. The stakes are far too high.
As we must raise the bar for our standards of what’s ethical and responsible in business, we need to raise the standards for what differentiates us in business.
Steal the recipes from the world’s greatest chefs, and surely, I’m still not taking their place on the line.
Likewise, as Eric alluded to, we should think similarly about our businesses and business broadly. The differentiators of the past (price, speed, and convenience) have led us to many of the issues we see today.
You would be hard-pressed to find an example where low prices or some sort of expedience aren’t resulting in some greater environmental or social cost.
So, transparency in business is a practice of documenting just about everything and making it a practice to share with all appropriate stakeholders (internally and externally).
For product and/or materials-based businesses, this begins with the supply chain; how, where, and by whom your products are made and materials are sourced. But, there are many other ways companies can and should pursue greater transparency; pay, advertising and marketing guidelines, ownership structure, and more.
But, before we share the examples to aspire to, let’s start with some contrast—what a lacking of transparency can result in.
Bad Examples: The Opposite of Transparency in Business
➤ Patagonia and Forced Labor in Xinjiang — Reported in May 2022 by The New York Times, Patagonia saw its intel into its supply chain in the Chinese province of Xinjiang go dark. Throughout the year, media reports continued to detail findings of forced labor of Uyghur people in the area.
Finally, because information and transparency remained insufficient, Patagonia decided to stop doing any business in the area and move operations elsewhere.
By not pursuing conditions for complete transparency from the beginning of establishing this part of their supply chain, Patagonia put itself in a position to be reactive.
While yes, they made the right decision ultimately to move out of the province, I would argue they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. And while they took all that time to try to receive information (that they couldn’t receive), was forced labor being used?
As Eric Henry said, transparency is a “check and balance,” and not just for consumers. If your business loses the ability to check, then, like Patagonia here, things can fall out of balance.
➤ Ben & Jerry’s and Child Migrant Labor in Vermont — In 2023, Ben & Jerry’s was reported to have child migrant labor employed throughout their dairy supply chain. Perhaps if their supply chain was more transparent, to begin with, this problem could’ve been avoided, just like our Patagonia example, above.
However, worse than Patagonia, I reached out to Ben & Jerry’s for comment, and the company deferred me to a statement (declining additional questions) instead. The statement provided avoided even the slightest bit of acknowledgment.
All they “acknowledged” was being mentioned in the article.
Ben & Jerry’s lack of transparency in their supply chain led to the exploitation of children. Their lacking accountability, in my opinion, undermines the credibility of the entire brand.
➤ Fake “Organic” Cotton in India — Investigative reporting from The New York Times found that much of the organic cotton being grown and exported from India is not in fact organic. As was reported, “At the heart of the problem is an opaque certification system rife with opportunities for fraud.”
Companies like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Michael Kors, and Tommy Hilfiger are buying this cotton. Their lacking transparency in their supply chain leads them to mislead consumers. In fact, they likely charged consumers more for products claiming they were organic (because they thought they were) when they weren’t.
This is what lacking transparency in business leads to—even many of the most shining examples of sustainability or responsibility in business get caught on their heels and mislead consumers as a product of it. These companies can claim it’s not malicious, and I don’t believe it is; however, if you put yourself in these positions repeatedly, what can we expect?
It’s like you’re trying to clean up your diet, but you keep buying junk food at the store. If it’s not in your house, it’s far less likely you’ll eat it!
How long (potentially) were forced laborers working on any of Patagonia’s supplying farms?
For Ben & Jerry’s, a claimed champion of nonpartisan progressive values, how long had migrant children been a part of producing their ice cream?
Eileen Fisher, how many $100 – $200 shirts did they sell, claiming they were made with organic cotton when they weren’t?
These businesses lack the appropriate transparency into their supply chains—as they make claims to the quality, sustainability, and responsibility through which their businesses are built upon, how can anyone possibly trust that?
Organic cotton production is less resource intensive and damaging than conventionally farmed cotton. In his autobiographical, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s Founder, goes on about this at length.
However, who gives if you don’t know if the cotton you’re buying is organic? I can’t help but push back on all the activism, branding, and value signaling with a call to action for these brands to do the basic things right.
At a bare minimum, you need to know what’s happening in your supply chain. And I’m picking on these brands typically associated with sustainability or social responsibility because I believe they want to and have the will to do better.
Worse examples, like Nike, Adidas, or the many tech companies associated with the Congolese cobalt mining operations, may be out of our scope for this conversation. Labor abuses due to lacking transparency from the old guard are to be expected.
Labor abuses from the new age of “better businesses” can undermine the movement of making business more ethical, sustainable, and equitable overall.
Why is it Important to be Transparent in Business?
Major multinational corporations use the opacity and complexity of global (or, like Ben & Jerry’s, domestic) supply chains to defer responsibility and accountability.
We already introduced the Rana Plaza disaster. It is half the battle to know who is attached to these various tragedies and the egregious working conditions that enabled them.
Where is this movement headed if these companies are champions for better business practices but can’t get the proper handle on what’s happening in their operations? It’s like the blind leading the blind.
As I mentioned, The Rana Plaza disaster spurred a wave of activism in the fashion industry. One incredible example is Fashion Revolution. Fashion Revolution, a nonprofit social enterprise based in England, was founded by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, both fashion industry veterans.
The organization’s cornerstone piece of work is the Fashion Transparency Index. Each year, their organization reviews and ranks the world’s largest 250 fashion brands according to what details they publicly share about their supply chains and operations.
The organization’s theory of change has transparency as its foundation for anything and everything else to follow.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Orsola, and I asked her why transparency was so important in the context of not just fashion but any industry.
“At the end of the day, transparency doesn’t lead you to sustainability. It leads you to a place where you can discover for yourself whether it is or isn’t, whether the practices are best practice or not best practice.
The reality is that brands must understand that this closed-door mentality leads to rife environmental and human abuse and that radical and mandatory transparency is absolutely what we demand, what we request, and what can no longer be denied in this day and age after situations such as Rana Plaza…
So transparency is really for us all to keep these brands accountable and then eventually to understand what a new set of information we need to have when we go shopping.
If you are just as used to checking if a brand has your size but [now] also checking if they publish their code of conduct, you will develop better shopping habits.”
Transparency brings the facts forward. And with facts, we all can make more informed decisions.
Are those practices good or bad? Can those materials be more sustainable? Should those workers be compensated differently?
The lacking facts, and the lacking transparency, are frankly a slap in the face for the many consumers who, when they shop, are trying to shop more sustainably or ethically. How might it feel to purchase a $200 sweater from Patagonia, a champion of better business, and a week later read an article about alleged exploitation in their supply chain?
How might it feel to purchase a $180 “Certified Organic Cotton” shirt from Eileen Fisher and wake up to a New York Times article that suggests much of the cotton they buy isn’t organic?
There’s no improvement if we don’t know where we stand. That’s the critical first step. And by misleading consumers who themselves become advocates and supporters for more responsible business greatly undermines the better business movement’s sphere of influence.
By participating in greater transparency as business leaders, we do our part to make transparent business the norm.
Knowing where we are will help us all (businesses, customers, regulators) know where we need to go. For some in the business community, that’s still step one, knowing where you are.
For others, as I’ll share next, their foundation of transparency is allowing them to truly, in fact, push the bounds of what’s possible in sustainability.
Examples of Transparency in Practice
➤ TS Designs — WhereYourClothing.com
Already mentioned, TS Designs prints QR codes on the labels of their products. Scan the QR code on your t-shirt, and you’ll be taken to WhereYourClothing.com, where you can see the entire supply chain, as Eric Henry says, “from dirt to shirt.”
➤ A Good Company — Factory List
A Good Company, a Swedish sustainable e-commerce company, offers up a list of its entire supply chain on its website, agood.com.
You can see where each of their products was made and where materials are procured, and in some instances, you can even get in-depth information such as product mockups, step-by-step production, and what energy sources power the factory in question.
➤ Veja — Veja Project
Veja, an internationally recognized French sneaker brand, publishes what they call the Veja Project. The purpose of the Veja Project is to completely deconstruct the process of producing and selling sneakers to “reveal all.” They show how footwear can be produced and sold by the most ethical and sustainable means possible.
They are routinely updating over a dozen sections of the Veja Project, with everything from their positions on advertising (and why) to where they get the various materials that make up their shoes (cotton, rubber, leather, etc.).
➤ Dojo4 — Open-Sourced Co-Op Development
Dojo4 is a worked-owned cooperative tech agency that “open-sources” what they call the “Dojo4 Playbook.”
This is a collection of all the policies, legal documents, and procedures that enabled Dojo4 to become a worker-owned cooperative and also certify as a B Corporation repeatedly since 2015.
Businesses Committed to Revealing All
Gratefully, there are many businesses and business leaders (like the few I shared) who understand that transparency is imperative for improving the ethics and sustainability of business now and in the future.
While it might not be your supply chain hiding sub-minimum wages, cracks in the walls, or whatever else, someone else’s currently is.
The standards for A Good Company, TS Designs, Dojo4, Veja, and others, raise the standards for everyone.
If your business is willing to proactively say, this is how, where, and by whom our products are made, then more consumers will think to ask that of others.
We have to be honest with ourselves. The consequences for the business leader who can’t track and know everything happening in their supply chain are minimal. The consequences for some, as we learned with Rana Plaza, might be life-threatening.
Lacking supply chain transparency is not about what’s being hidden; it’s about who is being hidden. If we are serious about the prospect of business (and our business specifically) being a force for good, we should commit to revealing all.
If we honestly believe that no one, no matter the country someone is from, the stage of development of their economy, or how cheap the cost of their labor is, that they should in any way, shape, or form, have to risk their lives just to keep a job to provide for their families, then it is essential that complete transparency becomes the bar.
Perhaps we could apply the advice of management guru Peter Drucker to our supply chains, “what gets measured, gets managed.” As for this globalized marketplace, what’s known, and who is known about where and how we do business has a greater chance of being protected.
No competitive advantage or trade secrets should be worth another person’s dignity or life. So, as businesses and business people, we should be relentless.
We should be relentless in telling the whole story.
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Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.