The fashion industry is the largest employer in the world, an economic behemoth with about 40 million workers and annual revenues of $3 trillion. Yet most of the workers around the world enjoy little or no labor rights and operate in poor safety conditions. The industry is also the world's second most-polluting activity after the oil sector, according to data released by a consultancy, GoBlu International, during the 92nd edition of the Expo Riva Schuh show last month.

Lars Doemer, GoBlue's co-founder, said the fashion industry has also been suffering from a lack of transparency in the supply chain, which has been upsetting final users. When the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka – Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster – killed 1,135 people on April 24, 2013, many brands claimed that they did not know that their products were being manufactured at the factory and were caught off guard by the public outcry when television footage showed their labels amid the rubble.

Doemer pointed out that 10 to 15 years ago there was little transparency regarding the supply chain, but the situation is starting to change. Nevertheless, the textile industry still remains opaque, not for “evil reasons” but to protect its business. Due to a persistent lack of transparency, companies are unable to “engage and work with business partners on sustainability initiatives” or talk with stakeholders, Doemer said. Against this backdrop, there is growing pressure from stakeholders for greater openness. “It is a clear direction,” he added, noting that governments like those of Germany and the Netherlands are also pushing in that direction.

He noted that brands and retailers such as G-Star, H&M, Nike and Primark have released maps of their supply chains on their websites and that companies such as Inditex, Gap, Target, Puma, New Balance, Adidas, Levi's, Nike and Esprit are taking part in the Green Supply Chain Map project, which can be viewed online. “Things are happening fast,” said Doemer, referring to the manufacturing of all the products in the fashion sector, including footwear.

Among other examples of transparency, Doemer cited Timberland's “Nutrition label,” which states the company's environmental footprint, and the efforts of Aku, an Italian manufacturer of outdoor shoes that pledges to keep all the raw materials and components used for its products traceable.

Timberland, which belongs to VF Corporation, has been particularly active in developing sustainable activities. It has designed concept boots made with recycled leather and expects to use the material for part of its future models. The brand, the VF Foundation and Wrangler, a brand of jeans that belonged to VF until recently, have also invested $150,000 into a research project run by seven U.S. universities studying regenerative ranching, which entails intensively grazing cattle herds in relatively small areas before moving them to other similar areas. The technique allows the land to rest and the grass to grow again. Timberland is using the experiment to pilot a leather supply chain based on traceable hides from U.S. farms, with the aim of using leather from the project in collections to be launched next year.

Doemer also pointed out that certain websites allow viewers to rank brands based on their sustainability. Zalando offers a search function to pick products based on their sustainability.

He dismissed concerns that revealing one's supply chain could harm business. “There are hundreds of people who know your supply chain better than yourself,” he told the audience. He added that, in a world where the differentiation between the products available on the market is waning, the product's story can be a critical element of differentiation, “and sustainability is part of the story.”

Doemer claimed that there is no need to make large investments to improve traceability and sustainability. “If you are a small company, speak with your suppliers and think about which info resonates with your clients,” he said, noting that a lot of brands never gauge the situation to find solutions. A lot of producers in India and in Asia in general are “doing great things” to improve the sustainability of the supply chain, he indicated. “You can start with a low budget, there no need for a big team,” he concluded.