This week the Australian Fashion Report has been published by Australian aid and development organisation, Baptist World Aid. The report examines what prominent clothing companies in Australia are doing to protect workers in their supply chain from exploitation, forced labour and child labour.
Since the tragic Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse there has been much debate about labour standards in the clothing industry. Consumers increasingly want to know where their clothes and cotton is coming from. Many companies have responded to this shift by developing Corporate Social Responsibility policies but problems still remain. Change takes time but if these CSR policies are not implemented properly how can they be effective?
This was a key motivation behind the publication of the Australian Fashion Report. The report is the culmination of two years’ research and examines 41 clothing companies (128 brands) operating in Australia. It emphasizes the need for transparency in supply chains and urges the deliverance of an environment in which workers are respected and given a voice to negotiate working conditions and speak out against grievances.
The companies were ranked using a grading system after analysing four key aspects of Corporate Social responsibility; Policies, Traceability & Transparency, Monitoring & Training, Worker Rights. These were assessed using a variety of different sources, from the brands’ own publications to independent reports and an extensive questionnaire sent to the brand itself. Not all companies responded to the questionnaire however these companies can have their grades reassessed if they choose to take part in this aspect of the study. One still can’t help wondering why these companies were reluctant to take part and if this means they had something to hide.
The resulting grades are an indication of the extent to which companies have developed a set of management systems that, if used together, can reduce the risk of labour exploitation. High grades do not mean the clothes are child labour or forced labour free but it does mean that the supply chains that led to their production are better managed.
BWA have also produced a pocket guide to the report called ‘The Ethical Fashion Guide’. This shows clearly the best and worst companies in terms of 3 key categories: their Free2Work Supply Chain Rating, whether there is a guaranteed Living Wage for workers and if the company boycotts Uzbekistani Cotton. This aims to make it easier for ethically-minded consumers to consider who they want to buy their clothes following the results of this report.
THE KEY FINDINGS:
- Worryingly, 93% of companies did not know where their cotton was sourced from but 39% were able to name most suppliers involved a factory level. This indicates a lack of clarity in the supply chain and a need for companies to examine their sourcing processes. If the company does not know who is picking their cotton or making their clothes then it is harder for them to trace whether human trafficking or child labour exists within their supply chain.
- This is especially important as in 9 out of 10 of the world’s biggest cotton producers there has been reports of child labour. Australia was the only country in this top ten found not to use child labour in cotton harvests. Uzbekistan is the world’s fourth-largest cotton producer and the worst offender. There the President, Islam Karimov, has taken hundreds of thousands of children out of education to harvest cotton in the fields in horrible conditions. Gershon Nimbalker, co-author of the report, states that Karimov “uses the money to keep the dictatorship flush with funds, so it’s hugely problematic.”
- 12% of companies received an A rating for labour rights management but only 5% had a fully implemented policy to ensure workers received a living wage. This is glaring evidence of the need for more management of labour rights and enforcement of related laws. A decent Corporate Social Responsibility policy is all very good, but if it is not backed up with procedures that are implemented to ensure a safe working environment and that respects the workers’ right to a living wage, it is worth less than the paper it is written on.
The report highlights the labour rights issues involved in different stages of production such as forced child labour and worker exploitation in Uzbekistan. It provides a useful stepping stone for a public discussion about the sourcing of cotton and the need for transparency across the supply chain. Clothing companies around the world must be held to account over where their cotton comes from and who is involved in the production. Through making such information freely available to the public, BWA have shown that it is possible to scrutinize the policies and supply chains of some of the world’s largest clothing brands and that consumers can subsequently use this information choose where they spend their money.
BWA hope their report will empower consumers to purchase ethically, as there is a growing demand for transparency in supply chains following recent tragedies and investigations. We think it’s a further wake up call reminding companies to ensure their workers operate in a safe environment where they are rewarded and not exploited.
The PR teams in some of the companies featured in the report now have their work cut out. A good Corporate Social Responsibility policy with ‘ethical’ stance is not enough. Nor is being able to name suppliers involved in the manufacturing level. From cotton picking to the shop floor, companies must ensure that trafficked labour is identified and stopped at all stages of their supply chain. Paying a living wage and providing western standards of health and safety in work environments will help to change the culture.