How to reply to a customer asking #WhoMadeMyClothes — clearly & convincingly

A deep, detailed, difficult customer question never happens when it’s convenient.

Many customer care teams enjoy the quieter times after Christmas and the Women’s Fashion Weeks. It’s a good time to take a holiday, roll out some much-needed training, or upgrade IT.

And then, it’s #FashionRevolutionWeek. And social media is full of important questions which are tricky to answer. Especially in 220 characters.

Light blue square showing a black-and-white drawing of a T-Shirt and the words: "Your voice can change the system --- ask the brand #whomademyclothes?" followed by a drawing of a black-and-white fist
Image via fashionrevolution.org (2021 campaign)

  • People post selfies in their favourite clothes or pictures of their clothes’ labels, tagging clothes brands and asking: #WhoMadeMyClothes?
  • They often send chaser posts after a few days; replies are often publicly evaluated.
  • Many times, customers ask follow-up questions to find out even more detail about the factory and the workers that produced the item of clothing.

1990s-style email program screenshot with a suggested message to brands, provided by Fashion Revolution in 2021. See blog post for a full transcript.
Suggested message to brands, provided by Fashion Revolution as part of their 2021 social media campaign materials for supporters. Read on for a transcript.

To: bigcheese@fashionbrand.com

Subject: Who made my clothes?

Dear ________ [Brand name],

I am you customer and I love your style. However, I am concerned about the working conditions and environmental degradation in your supply chain.

There is a notable lack of transparency beyond the first tier of manufacturing where millions of people around the world are working to make the fabrics and raw materials in your products. In support of the Tamil Nadu Declaration and Framework of Action, Fashion Revolution has found that only 1 of 62 major brands and retailers disclose a list of all the suppliers that make the textiles used in their products.

Please tell me #WhoMadeMyClothes? and how you are taking action to address human rights across your whole supply chain. I urge you to publish a list of all the textile production sites in your supply chain, offering a view into the conditions faced by the people who make your products.

Sincerely,

YOUR NAME

Even if you work for a responsible brand and you already know how to reply to a customer query, these kinds of questions can seem really daunting…

  • It feels as if the whole world is in CC.
  • The reputation of your company is on the line.
  • And the questions ask for details about specific clothes — often bought years ago, and in any case part of a range that may include thousands of items. Those details are not always easy to dig out and share.

So here’s a step-by-step guide on how to handle #whomademyclothes well.

1. Reply fast

Aim to respond within one hour. If you don’t know the answer and need to do some research first, then tell the customer and keep them in the loop on your progress.

Tweet to REISS asking: "Hey @REISS #whomademyclothes? Can you tell me if this shirt is #Ethicalfashion so I know whether I can buy it?"
Image used with permission (thanks, Laura!)

Head of Proud Pads, Laura Niehorster, contacted REISS in 2017. More than eight months later, she’d still not heard back about this shirt she loved. “I was annoyed as I would have bought it if they’d told me something positive,” she told us. “The clothes are expensive enough, so I feel we should at least be able to expect good customer service.”

2. Say where the item of clothing was made

To find out, you may need to do a bit of research:

  • Perhaps you need to contact the team that looks after your supply chain for help.
  • Perhaps your company intranet has a detailed log of which stock comes from which factory.
  • Perhaps you have a lot of Annual Reports and Codes of Conduct on your website which you’re going to search.

Be transparent. Tell the customer where you’ve found the information. Then break it down into everyday language.

For example: “Your [model name] [type of clothing] was made in the [factory name] factory in [country] in [year]. [number of people] work in that factory.”

That’s the level of detail Claire Aston, co-founder of Together Street, liked about the response she had from Oliver Bonas in 2017:

Messages from Oliver Bonas. Read on for the transcript.
Thanks, Claire, for allowing us to use your screenshot.

Hi Claire, thanks so much for messaging us. We are going to follow this up our Ethical Trading Manager for more information and we will be back in touch soon. Please let us know if you have any other questions in the meantime. Thanks, Team OB.

Hi Claire, At Oliver Bonas, we have a company motto “Work Hard, Play Hard and Be Kind”. We aim to “Be Kind” in every aspect of our company life. As a design-led British retailer, we strive to do business in a way that has integrity, is ethical and doesn’t negatively impact others or the environment. We have developed an ‘Oliver Bonas Supplier Code of Conduct’ (Code) to ensure that the high standards we set for ourselves are replicated throughout our supply chain.

This Code (which can be found here [link]) is designed to communicate our minimum ethical standards we expect from our suppliers. Our Code is based on the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code which is an internationally recognised code of labour practice. We ask all factories we work with to sign this Code before working with them. We then check our suppliers are complying with this code by auditing, visits by our ethical and buying team and collaborating with international initiatives with other retailers.

Our clothing is made predominately in China, India and Turkey from a range of suppliers from large factories to smaller artisan producers. Our Jessie heart print dress you photograph below was made in a factory with 160 workers in Shenzen, China in 2015.

Thanks Team OB

“I was happy with the speed of their response,” she says, “and the amount of detail they included. The thing that still niggles me is that ethical codes of conduct are one thing, but knowing that a brand is actively monitoring whether those codes are being adhered to is another.”

Which takes us to step 3:

3. If you mention codes of conduct, explain how you enforce them.

Codes of Conduct can be very powerful — or they can be toothless tigers. It all depends on whether factories are regularly and independently checked for compliance with the code. Most conscious fashionistas are savvy in this area, and they demand more than a reference to the Code.

4. Check that you sound like you care.

Your customer cares.

Your factory workers care.

Since you’re reading this, we bet that you care, too.

And yet, we still see many customer care responses that sound indifferent.

Surprisingly, even from big brands whose policy changes all seem to point in the right direction. Take these messages from Marks & Spencer (2017), for example:

Tweet from Marks and Spencer: "Due to business sensitivity, we aren't able to provide specific supplier details. All suppliers we use in India are shown on the map.

Tweet from Marks & Spencer: We want to be recognised as a leader on transparency in the retail sector and have made it a key priority of Plan A by introducing several new commitments. In 2017, we committed to become even more transparent about how we operate and... 1/2

So, how can you make sure your customer care reply sounds genuine and human?

  • Avoid the words “commitment” and “committed”. Years of PR and corporate communications have turned them into a parody of themselves. “We’re committed to becoming more transparent” makes many customers doze off instantly — after all, if you’re so committed, why not say, “we’re making our fashion supply chain the most transparent on the UK market”?

    “Promise” is a better word to use. It carries more weight. Promises shouldn’t be broken: something’s at stake here. If it feels uncomfortable, that can be a good sign.

    But you might want to opt for something more concrete: “We’re working on a project that will make us the most transparent fashion brand in the UK.”
  • Use words that normal people say in everyday conversation. Don’t misuse a press release for a customer care response.
  • Thank the customer for asking the question, and tell them that you agree it’s important. Don’t just write, “Thanks for getting in touch! We always love to hear from our customers.” It’s too indiscriminately cheerful for such a serious topic.
  • Train everybody in every team on your sustainability efforts, and include them in practical projects. Let them experience in their everyday work that you care about making the world a better place and take these things seriously.

    Anyone in your company should be able to explain basic facts about where your factories are based and why; how you look after workers worldwide; and what you’re doing to address the (inevitable) room for improvement.
  • Make it easy to take in: use lots of white space. Also consider video, audio, infographics and photos to get your point across. This shows that you care about your customers’ ability to process the info you share.
  • Prepare for these questions by writing email, letter and live chat templates. These can be quite loose and simply include pointers about structure, good sentence starters, words to avoid, or authoritative links to the info — think ‘map’, not ‘autopilot’. They’ll help with speed and confidence when the critical questions come.
  • Take care of the details, too: correct spelling, grammar and punctuation show off your competence and respect for the reader.

5. Make it easy for people to find out for themselves.

OK, this one’s a whole-company effort — customer care teams usually can’t do this alone.

Brands like Patagonia, Where does it come from? and Rapanui let customers trace their garments through the entire supply chain online. This kind of documentation fuels positive conversations about your policies, essentially giving you free marketing when customers share the info on social media. And the fact that information is so easily available makes it almost unnecessary for people to get in touch with questions — a nice way to cut customer care workload.

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