Fashion is a profitable and impactful industry, with 1 in 6 people worldwide relying on the fashion industry for work.
Consumer’s thirst for fashion has jumped up dramatically, with garment production moving overseas to places like Bangladesh and China for cheaper labour.
This has come at a high price to the garment workers and the planet, using cheaper materials and paying unfair wages in unsafe conditions.
"We don’t know enough about the impact our clothing has on people and planet…We believe transparency is the first step to transform the industry. And it starts with one simple question: Who made my clothes?"
The world turned a blind eye to ‘modern slavery’ in garment production until it was forced to look in 2013, when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 and injuring over 2,500 workers. The building’s owners ignored warnings and forced (mostly female) workers to go into work to meet the needs of brands such as Mango, Zara and Primark.
‘The low-cost economies, the developing countries, get the work, but since they are so desperate for work they go down in price if the companies wants them to. If they say no to the company, wanting to employ them, the company will just go to the competitor. They are always trying to survive. Low costs for the company means that the factory owner has to cut costs and disregard safety measures.’ – Krug Store, ‘The Effects of Fast-fashion’ 2018
Images of ironic ‘Girl Power’ clothing items from Mango (left) and Zara (right), both brands were associated with the Rhana Plaza collapse killing over 1,000 majority female workers in unsafe conditions.
Name & Shame
Since the horrific Rhana Plaza collapse, consumers are starting to wake up to bullshit that is going behind the scenes and demanding brands to take responsibility of supply chains. It can no longer be assumed that the government’s ensuring clothing is fairly traded and ethically produced, because it isn’t.
This has been heightened by access to knowledge via social media and reports from not for profit organisations such as Baptist World Aid, Fashion Revolution and Oxfam. Fashion is still incredibly confusing for the every day consumer and as emphasised at the recent Circular Fashion Conference in Sydney in March, brands need to be more clear and honest to consumers about where their garments come from.
“We don’t know enough about the impact our clothing has on people and planet…We believe transparency is the first step to transform the industry. And it starts with one simple question: Who made my clothes?” –Fashion Revolution website, 2018
Pointing fingers and shaming brands is not always the preferred approach, but somebody has to do it. Organisations like Baptist World Aid and Oxfam are both in this position, releasing reports each year rating, naming and shaming brands that aren’t transparent or ethical enough. The Green Hub spoke with Oxfam’s Chief Executive Dr Helen Szoke last year about the “What She Makes” Report, read more here.
Image via Peppermint Magazine
Baptist World Aid ‘Behind The Barcode’ Report
Baptist World Aid is an International Christian aid and development organisation, striving to empower communities and achieve justice for people living in poverty. The organisation has focused on ethical consumption in the fashion and electronics industry, releasing yearly reports and guides.
The Behind The Barcode project has been running for five years, researching and grading brands based on a 33 specific criteria (see below on what these are).
Whether it’s the cotton woven into our shirts or the raw minerals in our electronic devices, the products we buy are often made by people that are underpaid, overworked, under aged and enslaved.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 152 million child labourers and 24.9 million victims of forced labour. – Baptist World Aid website, 2018
The Ethical Fashion Report’s fifth edition was published this year, download the guide here, looking at 407 brands and providing an overall grade (A-F) of the brand’s labour rights management. Shockingly, nearly three-quarters of the companies that scored a D+ or below are based in Australia.
This year was the highest amount of brand participation compared to all other reports
Cotton On Group received an A
Etiko received an A+
Mighty Good Undies received an A+
Outland Denim received an A+
Zara received an A-
ASOS published factory lists
There’s been an increase in companies tracing their fabric and raw materials supplies
Australian brand Outland Denim received an A+ in the Baptist World Aid 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, meaning the brand is transparent and the garments are ethically sourced and produced.
Baptist World Aid and Tearfund New Zealand, which is also an aid and development organisation, conduct the research together. Each year the survey changes, asking different questions and therefore it’s difficult to compare each report.
Now here comes the important bit, how are these brands actually graded?
It’s not that simple to understand but according to the Baptist World Aid website, the brands are graded on evidence in 33 criteria focusing on each company’s supply chain practices, from raw materials to manufacturing, in the four areas below (the information was taken directly from here).
It can be assumed that the information has been taken from online sources and from the brand itself. The higher grades are given to the brands that have put significant management systems in place to reduce worker exploitation, child and forced labour.
‘A living wage is defined as a wage sufficient to support all the basic needs of a worker and his or her dependents with some money left over for discretionary spending and saving for emergencies.’
Baptist World Aid website ‘FAQs’, 2018
The research team evaluates the company’s code of conduct, sourcing and subcontracting policies, and involvement with other organisations that work to combat worker exploitation.
2. Traceability & Transparency
Our research team evaluates how much of the supply chain the company has traced and whether it has disclosed any information to the public about its supply chain.
3. Auditing & Supplier Relationships
The research team assesses how much of the supply chain is audited for compliance with the company’s policies and looks at how the company manages supplier relationships to improve working conditions.
4. Worker Empowerment
The research team considers the company’s efforts to pay workers a living wage and assesses whether the company supports other aspects of worker well-being such as access to unions, collective bargaining agreements, and grievance mechanisms.
Image via Patagonia
What happens after the research?
Once the research has been conducted, the Research Team from Baptist World Aid sends the brand its findings with the option for further input, evidence or comments. For the ones that are unresponsive, they are contacted multiple times.
If a brand does not publish any information regarding factories or workers or respond to Baptist World Aid, they automatically receive an F grade. Some may say it’s unfair, however Baptist World Aid believes that companies need to be graded even if they do not respond, as they aren’t being transparent enough to the public.
The report is also published alongside an Ethical Fashion Guide to help consumers make better shopping decisions and encourage consumers to write to the brands that received a low grade.
What difference has it made?
It’s hard to say the exact positive effects that the Behind The Barcode project has achieved, however since it’s first report in 2013 more brands have taken part than ever before and a selection of brand’s grades have improved.
‘The collective impact of all of our decisions has been heard by companies, which has in turn been a driver for change.’
Numerous recent studies have confirmed that young consumers want ethical fashion, the demand is there. WGSN, the world’s #1 fashion trend forecaster, predicts that the new decade will be shaped by ethics and responsibility, read the Future Consumer report here.
Consumers and brands are embracing transparency and thanks to reports like Behind The Barcode pushing brands, it’s becoming unacceptable to hide crucial information from consumers about garment production.
The video below is a snippet from Newshub, discussing the impacts that reports such as Baptist World Aid’s Behind The Barcode have, with Annabelle Hunting from Auckland University who studies consumer behaviour and ethical consumption.
The limiting factor
Companies that put the work in to demand more ethical supply chains, like Baptist World Aid, deserve undue credit for forcing the hand of brands.
There is however limitations to finger pointing and grading brands. Supply chains are complicated, especially for the consumer. Supply chain expert and researcher Megan O’Malley, one half of Walk Sew Good and previous Head of Research for Project JUST, discussed the limitations of these reports with me.
Megan left and Gabby right, from Walk Sew Good
‘…Grading the brands is only helpful up to a specific point. It paints a very black and white picture of what the brands are doing when the work being done in the fashion industry is all sorts of shades of grey. I’m not sure you can really compare the work that a brand like H&M is doing with that of a brand like Kowtow with any kind of accuracy. It’s almost like comparing apples and oranges.
The report provides insight into a very small part of a brand’s operations. It looks at the policies that are in place and doesn’t necessarily measure the effectiveness of those policies. The report itself says: It is important to note that a high grade does not mean that a company has a supply chain, which is free from exploitation. I think that based on this very basic information about what brands are doing you can’t really make an informed decision about whether or not you should shop at a brand. But the everyday consumer doesn’t know that. They just see the grade and continue on shopping at any brand that has a high rating.’
No one is discrediting the incredible work that organisations like Baptist World Aid provide to empower consumers to shop ethically.
There is however limitations to grading brands and finger pointing and to make significant change, collaboration between NGO’s, the fashion industry, consumers and the government are required.
Until that happens, a combination of reports and honest conversations will have to do.
Olivia is an eco-writer, producer, science graduate & ocean enthusiast. After moving from London to Sydney, she found her love for the outdoors and recycled textiles, which led her to start writing about science and sustainable fashion. Olivia is really passionate about brands using fashion for good and innovation in the industry. She now splits her time between several not-for-profit organisations in communication roles. Olivia is also a Centre for Sustainability Leadership alumni and sits on the Fashion Revolution committee for Australia & New Zealand.