Changing the face of Ethical Fashion

In April 2018, in the lead up to the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza Building collapse, Baptist World Aid Australia published their fifth Ethical Fashion Report, assessing and grading companies on the labour rights protections in their supply chains.  

The Ethical Fashion Report is the premier report from Baptist World Aid Australia’s Behind the Barcode projectpublishing research and advocating to a range of industries to improve labour rights in their supply chains. We chatted to Libby Sanders, a key author on the project, to find out how this year, five years into this groundbreaking report, companies and the public have reacted.   

Why does Baptist World Aid produce the Ethical Fashion Report? 

The Ethical Fashion Report is an Advocacy initiative from Baptist World Aid Australia, working to influence change in the systems that perpetuate poverty and exploitation. The Report achieves this change by engaging and empowering consumers to make informed choices about the products they buy, and by influencing the fashion industry to build strong labour rights management systems in their supply chains.

For millions of workers worldwide, the global fashion industry is a significant provider of jobs, and while in this way there is great potential for improving the lives of workers and their communities in low-income countries, the global fashion industry is also known be a place of exploitation for millions. Ultimately, our hope is to influence a shift in this industry to tackle the risks of exploitation.

What was the team’s hope going into producing the 5th edition of the Ethical Fashion Report? 

The Report has been a driver for continuous improvement in labour rights management systems in the global fashion supply chain for five years, and we’re pleased to again see in this year’s report some strong progress in key areas of our research.

Traceability is just one key area of change – of the companies assessed, we’ve seen an increase from 17% of companies in 2013 to 42% in 2018 who are working to trace where their raw materials (such as cotton) are sourced, and from 49% of companies in 2013 to 78% in 2018 who are working to trace where their fabrics are sourced. 

This is an exciting area of progress, because a company knowing where their products come from is the first, essential step in being able impact the conditions for their workers.

We also began an initial assessment of companies’ efforts to mitigate their environmental impact in our 2018 Report. We asked 11 questions that looked at key metrics such as impacts on the climate, chemical management practices, water usage, and the completion of an environmental impact assessment. This preliminary research was telling, demonstrating a significant correlation between the strongest labour rights systems and strong environmental systems. This research was our first step, and we plan to include this in our future reporting to spur progress on this critical issue.

What has been the public reaction to the report so far?

Each year we publish the Ethical Fashion Report, we are encouraged to see deeper and wider engagement by the public. This year we again saw a strong coverage of the report’s launch in the media, an incredible reach on social media, and have ultimately also seen an increase in the number of guides ordered, helping more consumers to make informed choices.

This year we’ve also seen the public ask more informed and nuanced questions about our research and the subject of ethical fashion more broadly.

This highlights to us that the conversation on Ethical Fashion is not simply a trend, but is becoming a deeply rooted change in the way people approach their consumption. To see values-based decision-making at the checkout, with more consumers considering the people who make their clothes, is deeply encouraging. 

Was the team surprised by the reaction?

We’re obviously incredibly encouraged at Baptist World Aid to see this! We’re always delighted by the continued growth in engagement we see each year we publish the Report, and proud that the work reaches and connects with people both deeply into the Australian Church, and broadly across the country with the general public. It certainly continues to energise our work.

We regularly hear from the companies we conduct research with that consumer awareness and advocacy continues to spur their efforts forward, so we love to encourage our advocates that they truly are having an impact with the industry as well!

Has it become easier to engage companies in this project?

As awareness of the issues have grown, both within the industry and throughout the public domain across the last five years, many companies have genuinely sought to understand and own their responsibility to the workers in their supply chain.

We find then that many companies are both interested and keen to engage with the report’s research.

There are still a small number of companies who choose, for a range of reasons, to not engage in the research process for our Report. We acknowledge that these companies may be doing more to improve their ethical sourcing than we have the ability to assess them on, however limited transparency on these systems makes it almost impossible for consumers and the public to know if there is sufficient risk mitigation in place. We encourage the public to join us in asking these companies to do more to protect the workers in their supply chain.

While we do regularly have robust discussion and debate with companies on the subject matterwe value the healthy relationships we have with the sector. We’re pleased to be able to work productively with over 100 companies to highlight the progress being made in the sector, and to ultimately see improvements across time in their supply chain management systems.  

Besides using this report, what more can people to do ensure they are shopping ethically?

We of course firmly believe that shopping ethically involves advocacy – using our voices both to ask companies to do more to protect workers in their supply chains, as well as to thank companies for the changes they have already begun to implement.

We discussed recently on our blog issues with both Fast Fashion and consumerism itself. This cultural drive that facilitates exploitation, environmental degradation, and animal cruelty, goes well beyond fashion.

Ultimately, consumerism is a broken model that distracts people and societies from what is actually good – their relationships with people, planet, and God. We believe that it is important as Christians to consider and wrestle with these ideas when we consider what shopping ethically can mean for us.

You can read more about this year’s Ethical Fashion Report and download a copy here.

Photo source:  Baptist World Aid Australia.