Notably, the company doesn’t use sourcing agents as go-betweens with factories. It keeps direct contact with its suppliers. That’s a good sign, says Baumann-Pauly, as is H&M’s general practice of using “strategic partners,” basically meaning suppliers they have long-term relationships with. These relationships often mean the brand is more likely to invest in the supplier—if for no other reason than to make it more productive—and less likely to punish it for not hitting a deadline. That reduces the likelihood of labor abuses and the need to subcontract. Conversely, a brand frequently changing its suppliers can be a warning sign that bad practices are likely.

Still, how is the average person supposed to keep informed of all these details, or know what a brand’s relationship with its suppliers is like? Shoppers, especially millennials, are increasingly eager to make sustainable and ethical choices, and the rise of “transparency” is a step toward helping them do so. But it’s not an end unto itself: Transparency can only ensure fair and safe practices when coupled with rigorous third-party monitoring, and when it’s clear enough for shoppers to understand.

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