In April 2013, the western world was shocked as images of the Rana Plaza building collapse began to circulate. Over 1 100 people died and around 2 500 people were injured in the tragedy. The building, in Bangladesh, mostly housed garment workers, and the collapse highlighted just how bad western greed in the fashion industry has become.
While here in the west we can enjoy $10 jeans, people – men, women and children – are being exploited in a range of ways in the countries that produce them, from the women who construct the garment, right down to cotton farmers. Lack of occupational safety, unliveable wages, long hours and high-burden contracts are just some of the ways our fashion is hurting some of our most vulnerable neighbours.
The Rana Plaza collapse inspired a number of global initiatives to try and change the system. One of them is the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report. The fourth report was released in April, and claims that a number of companies have stepped up their game to do more towards providing fairness for workers in the fashion industry.
Gershon Nimbalker, one of the authors of the report, said that they look at four pillars for each company they research: policies; knowing suppliers and transparency; auditing and supplier relationships; and worker empowerment, which includes whether workers receive a living wage.
“We spent a long time looking at what things we are assessing to get a feel for how much effort companies are putting in to ensure that they were mitigating the risks of forced labour and child exploitation throughout their supply chain,” Gershon said. “So we went out to labour rights groups, around the country and around the world, had input from places like the US Department of State and supply chain experts and we’ve just continued to refine that as we work more and engage more over the past four years.”
The process involves researchers prefilling publicly available data into a survey, sending the research to the company and inviting them to respond. Their most recent report surveyed 106 companies supplying fashion to Australia and New Zealand.
“The great news is that from the time we did our first report to now, the amount of companies that have actively engaged in that research process has continued to go up,” Gershon said. “It was less than 50% in our first report in 2013, it’s up to 84%. It’s a much bigger company call as well.
“For those that are committed to improving their labour rights system, they really see a lot of value in knowing where they rank and we work with a lot of companies to help them identify those areas where they should be putting emphasis on to improve the quality of their systems.”
While this has been a positive improvement, Gershon said that there are still some companies who don’t want to share their supply information at all, and for this reason, will get an ‘F’ grade.
Laura Cassie, a WA fashion enthusiast, said that while she is grateful for research such as the Ethical Fashion Report, she is still hesitant to buy from companies who may have received a higher grade, as the research relies on policies the company has put in place without the ability to look at actual practice. From her experience in the retail fashion industry and her own long-term research, Laura either purchases clothes second-hand, or from a small amount of companies she knows are ethical or Australian made.
While she said it’s great that these kinds of reports encourage companies to put policies in place, there is often no way of knowing whether they are followed through.
“People are so into this stuff at the moment, so there is a certain level of consumer power behind it. But my problem is that in some cases, it is just policies,” Laura said. “Companies have all kinds of policies and all kinds of procedures stated and recorded as being something that they do but it’s very hard to have oversight of that level of different brands.
“In lots of these places, no one can access these workplaces.
“It’s one thing for [a company] to say ‘this is really shocking to us’ – and I have no doubt that it is shocking to them – but the reality is that when you put time pressure and cost pressure on these suppliers, they outsource and they send things to homeworkers and you don’t have control over that supply chain anymore.”
Dr Mark Zirnsak, Director of Justice and International Mission for the Uniting Church VIC/TAS, is also hesitant to give some companies a green light without being able to have access to their workplaces, and that of their supply chains. He has recently been involved in preparing a submission to the Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. This act would cover a range of industries which are vulnerable to modern slavery.
Mark said that the fashion industry often is exploitative, and does also at times fall into modern slavery. Rather than just individuals changing their purchasing habits, Mark said he’d also like to see a groundswell of people supporting campaigns which create big change.
“You’re just not going to get enough people engaged in ethical buying for it to make the differences we need to see,” he said. “Really, buying slavery produced goods should not be a consumer choice.
“Often it’s very difficult to know whether the goods you’re buying have or haven’t had forced labour in them, which is why we think it really does require government action to take it away as a choice altogether.”
One of the biggest issues in the fashion industry today, which becomes apparent with research such as the Ethical Fashion Report, is that many companies find it almost impossible to trace their supply chains. Knowing where our clothing is being manufactured is one step, but finding out where the raw materials for that fashion come from is much harder – leaving people in that part of the chain much more vulnerable.
Gershon said that this is actually improving as companies are becoming more aware of the impact of their supply chain. When Baptist World Aid began this research, most companies responded saying it was too hard to trace their raw materials. Now, around 45% of companies surveyed say they are making an effort.
“From our perspective, if you don’t know who’s producing your cotton or spinning your fabric, then you can’t ensure that there’s not child labour or forced labour doing it. And given that the industry is such a high risk industry for exploitative practices, we think it’s critical,” Gershon said. “There’s still a long way to go though. Only a handful of companies know who their cotton suppliers are, only 39% of companies can trace the majority of their fabric mill. So while the industry is showing progress, there’s still a significant need for them to continue to list their efforts in this space.”
Much of the improvement in company policy in the industry can be put down to consumer pressure. Concerned shoppers like Laura have been active on social media, and in other ways, to publicly put pressure on companies to do better, through events such as the ‘who made my clothes’ campaign organised by the not-for-profit group, Fashion Revolution. On the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, 24 April, people are invited to post a picture of themselves on social media with their clothing tag facing out, directly and publicly asking fashion brands ‘who made my clothes?’
To Laura, it is the responsibility of the west to continue to act on this issue.
“We in western countries need to realise thatwe did this,” she said. “We pushed these countries to the point where they feel they have no option, but to get these contracts filled on these tiny tight timelines. We constantly push for more. We drove the prices down.
“We also need to realise that we can’t have cheap clothes and well treated workers – you have to decide.”
Gershon believes we need a culture shift to bring about change in the industry.
“When we define ourselves by the stuff that we buy and this constant cycle of buying stuff, we actually damage our relationship with each other and our relationship with God and our perception of ourselves,” he said.
“If we were able to buy less, we could give more. If we chose to buy fairly we would support people moving their lives out of poverty. If we bought stuff that was sustainable we’d start protecting the Earth in ways that we haven’t done.
“At every point you see the suffering that our consumption causes. How do we think about consuming less and giving more of ourselves, and certainly give more of our money, to help change the world?”
Baptist world aid, through their Behind the Barcode arm, produced their fourth Ethical Fashion Report, rating the ethical policies of fashion brands available in Australia and New Zealand. Find out more at baptistworldaid.org.au/resources/2017-ethical-fashion-guide.
Ethical clothing Australia works with Australian fashion companies to ensure their supply chains are transparent and legally compliant. For more info visit ethicalclothingaustralia.org.au.
Fashion revolution Australia is an online network celebrating the efforts of local designers and brands who create ethically produced fashion. Their ‘Who made my clothes?’ social media campaign has been highly successful around the world. Find out more at fashionrevolution.org.country.australia.
Good Samaritan Industries not only provide meaningful employment to people living with disabilities, they also stop mountains of fashion ending up in landfill. Good Sammy’s op shops, part of the Uniting Church WA, sold 4.31 million items across WA in 2015-2016. Find a Good Sammy store near you at goodsamaritan.com.au.