the fashion report card: finding a silver lining
In August 2013, a fashion report was published by two Australian companies, Not for Sale and Baptist World Aid. This study provides an overview and statistics of how 41 clothing companies in Australia source their garments, and how they treat the workers that help to make them. This report is much needed after a slew of stories about companies exploiting workers and using children for labour overseas.
The report gives statistics and relative company grades to provide consumers with the information they need to buy ethically. Although the results are somewhat bleak; the information is a silver lining on that which existed previously.
While in the past there was little information on clothing garments, and the conditions of work under which they are produced, recent demand by consumers has prompted research and statistics to be conducted regarding these issues. After the tragic incident of the seven storey Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, Australian citizens were placing increasing demands to gain access to information on how clothing products were being produced.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza caused over 1040 deaths and many more injuries. Following investigations into why this happened revealed that the worksite had long been unsafe, and that the factory workers were being exploited to work for less than minimum wages under poor conditions.
These investigations were published in newspapers and online worldwide, and as a result, Australians demanded to know if the clothes they were buying were being made under similar conditions.
Aimed at meeting consumer demands, Not for Sale and Baptist World Aid funded research to be conducted into the ethical standards of 41 Australian clothing companies, including large corporations such as Myer, Kmart and David Jones. The companies are assessed and graded ‘across four categories of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices: Policies, Traceability & Transparency, Monitoring & Training, and Worker Rights.’ It is emphasized that a positive grade, such as an ‘A’ on the Policy measure does not assure workers well-being, as many companies do not assure these policies are implemented correctly.
For example, although the sportswear company Nike received an ‘A+’ grading for its policies which legislated that the companies’ codes of conduct and resourcing mechanisms were ethical and in line with workers rights, the report on the implementation of these policies revealed that Nike adequately monitors only 3 out of the 7 areas where its ethical codes are required to be met. It is clearly relevant that Nike received a grading of ‘C-’ on the measure of ‘worker’s rights.’ While Nike’s policies assures the well-being of its workers, the company’s failure to adequately implement these has allowed factory processes to persist which neglect workers basic rights.
While in Australia there are regulations regarding ethical production processes for clothing companies, gaps in the policies and production chains mean that many companies do not fulfill their workers’ basic rights. Factories in developing countries often fail to meet occupational health and safety standards and workers’ wages are less than they require to live. This is largely due to the regulation which requires that companies pay their workers at least minimum wage. While this regulation aims to make companies ethical, the fact that minimum wages in these countries are often less than sustainable, means that companies have been able to exploit their workers overseas. As a result, factory workers making clothing often have to work ‘excessive overtime to make ends meet’; while those selling the garments profit significantly from the surplus.
According to The Australian Fashion Report, one of the best ways that companies can assure the well-being and welfare of their workers is to provide them with a ‘living-wage.’ This is ‘a wage high enough to ensure that workers can meet the basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, energy, transport etc.) for themselves and their families, with a small amount left over for savings in case of an emergency.’ However, despite this emphasis, the fact is that most clothing companies do not even provide their workers with enough of an income to meet their most basic needs. From the 41 companies detailed in the report, only the 2 Fairtrade brands, 3Fish and Etiko, paid a living wage to overseas workers in their supply chain. While Cue was also noted as a company that paid a living wage, this extended to only their Australian-made product range.
Unfortunately, this means that when we buy products from companies which outsource their work to overseas countries, we are basically supporting a system of exploitation. The wages paid to the workers making our clothes are not only minimal, they cannot be sustained. Workers give all their time to work just to stay alive; and often under conditions which puts their existence at risk.
Reading through the report, it was made clear to me that my choices are limited if I want to assure I ethically consume. Australian companies do little to assure the well-being of their workers overseas. While a third of the 41 companies received an ‘A’ grade for the ethics of their policies; most of them failed to assure they were implemented properly for workers at different levels. Out of all the 41 companies, only 3Fish and Etiko received an ‘A’ overall grade. While the companies Hanes, Inditex and Timberland also scored well, receiving ‘A-’ overall, this for me left much to be desired. I’ve never even heard of these companies; and I am sure they don’t exist in my hometown.
Thankfully, after thinking about this, I realised that there is a silver lining. One way to assure clothing is fairtrade is to buy locally. Buying directly from the person who makes them, means you know the conditions under which your clothes are made; and the wages that the labourer is being paid. I realised this, and so I made a pledge. Although I know this is fairly limited, the report made pretty clear to me that this is one of the only ways I can shop ethically. Obviously, living in the small town of Hobart, I cannot find everything locally made. Underwear for example, doesn’t tend to be up for sale in small handmade boutiques. For this reason, my second choice will be to shop at 3Fish or Etiko. A quick online search showed me that these fairtrade labels offer all of your basic necessities.
So while the report overall was pretty depressing, the silver lining for me was that it provided me with the information I need to make sure I shop ethically. While adhering to this will mean that my range of choice is significantly limited; I believe this is a small price to pay. I do not think it is fair for people overseas to have to suffer just so I can shop leisurely. Their wellbeing is just as important as mine.
*This article was based on – The Australian Fashion Report sponsored by Baptist World Australia and Not for Sale. Further information and the report can be accessed at https://www.baptistworldaid.org.au/behind-the-barcode