Kiwi brands committed to supporting vulnerable workers throughout COVID-19 pandemic revealed in Tearfund review

After a year like no other, a special edition of an annual ethical fashion review has revealed which Kiwi fashion brands made an effort to protect their vulnerable garment workers during the perils of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Earlier this year, Tearfund announced its popular ethical report grading clothing brands on their efforts to address worker exploitation and environmental degradation would be postponed.

But after concern about the impact of COVID-19 on the rights and wages of workers making clothes around the world, the organisation launched a special pandemic-centric investigation. 

In May, Tearfund and its partner, Baptist World Aid, developed six Covid Fashion Commitments specifically aimed at keeping companies focused on protecting workers, including those who sew and assemble final garments, the input producers who manufacture and dye the fabrics, and other component suppliers producing raw materials like cotton, polyester, or wool.

Tearfund's COVID Fashion Commitments: 

  1.  Support workers’ wages by honouring supplier commitments

  2.  Identify and support the workers at greatest risk

  3.  Listen to the voices and experience of workers

  4.  Ensure workers’ rights and safety are respected

  5.  Collaborate with others to protect vulnerable workers

  6.  Build back better for workers and the world

Kiwi brands committed to supporting vulnerable workers throughout COVID-19 pandemic revealed in Tearfund review
Photo credit: Supplied/Tearfund.

On Wednesday Tearfund released the results to see which 96 companies covering 428 brands engaged with the commitments. Among the brands, 39 were international, 50 were from Australia and 11 were from New Zealand.

"The good news is that 70 percent of companies assessed could demonstrate that they had taken at least some deliberate positive actions to support vulnerable garment workers through the global pandemic," the report reads. 

"However, there is still much work to be done though with 56 percent of companies unable to show action across all six of the Covid Fashion Commitment areas."

New Zealand companies came in at higher than average, with 80 percent of Kiwi companies assessed showing some evidence of upholding the commitments, and over 50 percent assessed landing in the top tier: "Actions evidenced across all commitments". 

Some beloved NZ companies were ranked as top tier, including AS Colour, Kathmandu, MacPac, Hallenstein Brothers and Glassons. 

Glassons NZ CEO April Ward told Newshub "transparency and visibility have been a major focus" when working with the company's suppliers.

"COVID-19 only reinforced for us the importance of these relationships, with our team going above and beyond to ensure suppliers were supported so in turn they could support their workers," she said. 

"We also engaged with Chinese NGOs who provide factory workers independent access to consultation, support and remediation of workplace grievances." 

Although proud of their efforts, she also said it was an "ongoing journey" and they "cannot become complacent". 

"In September we launched our sustainability journey which is something the business has been working on for the last couple of years and will roll out across all facets of our business in a major way," she revealed. 

"We have partnered with Global certification bodies that will support in the transparency we are striving towards." 

The pandemic has been particularly hard on vulnerable workers.
The pandemic has been particularly hard on vulnerable workers. Photo credit: Supplied/Freeset.

But it's not all good news for fashion lovers. Using public information available, several Kiwi fashion brands including Barkers, Farmers and Max Fashions could show no evidence of protecting vulnerable workers and chose not to engage with the study. 

Other international brands which demonstrated no such evidence included Jeanswest, Ben Sherman and Decjuba. 

The Warehouse, Schooltex, Kate Madison and Maya all showed actions evidenced across some commitments, as well as international brands Myer, Nike, Marks & Spencer and Lorna Jane.

Tearfund Corporate Advocacy Specialist, Annie Newton-Jones says during the pandemic her team has been hearing "heartbreaking stories" of workers negatively affected by the pandemic. 

"Many have lost their jobs or been furloughed, often resulting in them not being able to put food on the table for themselves and their families," she told Newshub.

"Brands have a duty to support workers who they partner with and make sure they’re treated with care and dignity through this time, and beyond.

"The more connected a brand is with its supply chain, the more opportunity they have to effect real meaningful change."

Newton-Jones says consumers are becoming increasingly invested in where their clothing is sourced from. 

"Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the need for transparency in the fashion industry.  

"Around 10,000 people a year have downloaded the Ethical Fashion Guide in New Zealand since it was launched.  We know these people care about who makes their clothes and are using the Guide to make informed purchasing decisions."

When asked which Fashion Commitment she would like to see more focus on from fashion suppliers,  Newton-Jones couldn't choose but said number six - "Build back better for workers and the world" - was especially relevant. 

"It calls on companies to rebuild a broken system and continue to change and evolve their systems for the sake of vulnerable workers and our planet," she says. 

"This journey doesn’t stop when the pandemic is over. It stops when we have a fashion industry that empowers and doesn’t exploit, that preserves and doesn’t destroy - a fashion industry driven by greater values of connection and care."

According to Tearfund, New Zealand-based companies with an estimated annual revenue in excess of NZ $30 million in 2019 were automatically included in the study, as were international companies coming in at more than AU$50 million. 

Companies below these thresholds were given the option to participate. 

The annual Tearfund report has caused controversy in the past, drawing the ire of several high-profile designers. 

Last year 10 Kiwi companies received grades of D or lower. Farmers, Trelise Cooper and Baby City were among seven companies to be given an F grade, with Cooper denouncing the report as "misleading and deceptive".