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ETHICAL FASHION: INDUSTRY MAKES SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENTS IN PROTECTING WORKERS BUT GAPS STILL REMAIN

21 April 2017 David Adams

Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid Australia, is upbeat about the changes that have taken place in the fashion industry – both in Australia and overseas – since the launch four years ago of the organisation’s first examination of how fashion brands are – or aren’t – protecting supply chain workers from exploitation.

“We’ve seen some really significant improvements in a bunch of critical areas,” he says. “More than ever now, companies are tracing deeper into their supply chains.”

SUPPLY CHAIN WORKERS: Cotton pickers in India and a garment maker in Thailand are among those involved in Asia’s massive garment-making industry which the Ethical Fashion Report is seeking to ensure are protected from exploitation. PICTURES: Courtesy of Baptist World Aid Australia.

“We’ve seen some really significant improvements in a bunch of critical areas. More than ever now companies are tracing deeper into their supply chains.”

– Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid Australia.

Speaking as the latest Ethical Fashion Report was released this week, Mr Nimbalker that in the last year alone, half of the 106 companies – representing some 330 brands – included in the latest report improved the strength of labour rights management systems.

The fourth produced since 2013 (and released for the first time in New Zealand as well as Australia through partner agency Tearfund New Zealand), the 2017 report also shows that 81 per cent of companies were trying to trace the source of fabrics and 45 per cent are attempting to trace where cotton is sourced from – encouraging signs, says Mr Nimbalker, given that “it’s in those areas where the worst forms of labour rights abuses, like slavery and child labour, are at their most extreme”.

Among other positive findings in the latest report include a rise in the number of companies publishing full supplier lists – initially rejected by some companies as compromising commercially protected information – from 16 per cent to 26 per cent in the past year alone. Overall, 59 per cent of those companies which were assessed in the 2016 report improved their grade in the 2017 report.

Despite that, Mr Nimbalker says the latest report – which, like the previous reports, grades companies from A to F based on the strength of the systems they have in place to mitigate the risks of exploitation in their supply chain, shows that there is still much work to be done.

Of the companies featured in the report only 15 were awarded a grade in the A range (C+ was the median grade and 10 companies received a grade of F), while only seven per cent of companies know where all their cotton comes from and just one, Mighty Good Undies, could prove they were paying all their workers a living wage.

Mr Nimbalker says the latter – ensuring all workers in the supply chain were paid a “living wage”, defined as a wage that covers the basic costs needed to survive as well as a little extra to cover a worker and their family in a time of distress – remained one of the biggest challenges in the industry.

“Living wages are consistently the thing that workers are most concerned about in the fashion supply chain,” he says. He adds that while more companies are now investing in improving local wages – rising from 11 per cent in the 2013 report to 42 per cent in this year’s, “it’s also an area where not enough progress is being made”.

Mr Nimbalker says that if the issue of a living wage is addressed, “most of the other levels of worker abuse and exploitation will drop off really significantly”. “It’s usually the biggest, most demonstrable benchmark that the rights of workers are being listened to and responded to,” he notes. “Where workers are being paid a living wage, in most instances they’re empowered, they talk about abuses that occur around them, and it changes the shape of what their working conditions are like”.

The report also shows that Australian companies are lagging behind multi-nationals when it comes to ensuring workers in their supply chains are protected. Of 15 brands which received an A grade or higher, only three Australian-headquartered companies – Fairtrade businesses Etiko, Mighty Good Undies and RREPP – were ranked alongside multi-nationals like Zara, Pull&Bear and Patagonia.

But Mr Nimbalker is quick to add that there are a number of well-known Australian brands – including Cotton On, Supre, Jag, Sportscraft, and Bonds – which were “nipping at their heels”.

The care of fashion industry workers is something of a local issue for Australia with the neighbouring Asia Pacific region home to more than 40 million fashion industry workers – China being the biggest producer, followed by India. Sadly, the region is also estimated to be home to more than half of all the world’s forced labourers – more than 11.7 million people – as well as some 78

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