From A+ to F, this is how Australian fashion brands rate on ethics

Australian brands Kookai, Country Road and Cotton On have vastly improved their standing in a major ranking of brand's ethical fashion practices, but there are still plenty of labels failing the test.

Of the 130 companies surveyed by Baptist World Aid for its annual Ethical Fashion Report, more than one-third showed some improvement on their 2018 overall grade, decided based on criteria including gender equality, purchasing practices and labour conditions.

Top scorers with an A+ grade included Outland Denim, the brand loved by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex during her royal tour of Australia last year, Etiko, Freeset T-shirts, Icebreaker, Kowtow, Liminal Apparel and Mighty Good Undies.

But several brands received an F for either failing to respond to the survey or provide publicly available information on the reporting criteria. They included Bec and Bridge, Bloch, Camilla and Marc, Hot Springs (owners of Rebecca Vallance and P.E. Nation) and Trelise Cooper.

While this doesn't mean the brands aren't adopting ethical practices, Baptist World Aid chief executive John Hickey said consumers and social trends were demanding more companies shift from a "commercial in confidence mindset to moving to sharing and learning how to treat workers in the supply chain better".

Accordingly, the response rate for the survey has risen three-fold since 2013.

A spokeswoman for P.E. Nation said the brand had chosen not to respond to the survey while it "is on a journey developing ethical and social compliance programmes and to become a more sustainable business", including launching its first range made from recycled materials.

"The grade given … is not indicative of our commitment and the practices that we are undertaking … [or] the journey we have begun," the spokeswoman said.

"As a brand, we are deeply committed to our people and the planet. The ongoing development of our social and environmental strategy is of great importance."

A spokeswoman for Trelise Cooper said its F grade was was "misleading and deceptive".

"It does unnecessary harm to those who have good practices but choose not to participate in the report," she said.

"By participating in this report, we would be endorsing this style of deceptive reporting, which is not based on first hand evidence gathering."

Several other brands that scored an F did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Hickey said this year's report was especially poignant given the passage of the federal government's Modern Slavery Act. This year also saw the introduction of an environmental grade, contributing to 10 per cent of a brand's overall score.

"We will consider how we will [weight that] going forward," he said. "We wanted to alert companies that we are measuring this seriously, and want to see change, but we want them to get on board."

The failure by 95 per cent to pay workers a living wage is still a major area for improvement, Mr Hickey said.

"We have been working on definitions [of a living wage], he said. "There are some key trends but it is a process. It’s also about the business models of companies … when there are pressures on price, you’re always going to be struggling [to pay adequate wages]. Where do you go if you have driven your whole model on being cheap?"

Lisa Egan, Kookai's head of legal and compliance, said the company worked to lift its grade from a B- to an A- by improving its documentation and reporting practices, among other changes.

"Because we own our own factories we were always confident we knew the conditions of our workers and ticked a lot of boxes," she said.

Ms Egan said that, while Kookai had been doing many things right on the ethical front, "it’s something we haven’t shouted about in the past".

She acknowledged the living wage issue is a struggle for many businesses. "We know what we pay our workers and we are comfortable with where that sits," she said, adding the company provides its factory workers with non-monetary benefits such as food, transport, counselling and medical.

A statement from Camilla and Marc said the Baptist World Aid report’s “nature and format of the questioning does not provide a comprehensive picture” of the company’s practices and the results “can be misleading”.

The company said it monitors “all aspects of our supply chain and we have a zero tolerance for unfair and unsafe working conditions”.

To view the full report, visit behindthebarcode.org.au.

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