Ethical fashion report delivers verdicts on Kiwi clothing brands

A global ethical fashion report has delivered a verdict on New Zealand brands, labelling them with grades from A to F based on an assessment of their labour practices.

Kowtow embraced the report and came out near the top, while others like Karen Walker, Trelise Cooper and The Warehouse declined to take part.

The Tearfund and World Baptist Aid Australia report scrutinised more than 100 companies and 400 brands, including 18 New Zealand companies. Ruby, Barkers and Trelise Cooper were among those picked out to be graded for the first time in 2018.

New Zealand companies scored a median grade of B- which was unchanged from 2017, and slightly above the international average of C+.

The report encourages more companies to publish their supplier lists in the interests of transparency, and to work towards paying living wages. No company on the list currently paying a living wage down its supply chain.

Companies were also graded on the policies in place to address worker exploitation, the transparency and traceability of supply chains, auditing processes and how empowered workers are to have their voices heard. Companies that did not take part in the research were given a grade regardless.

Ethical fashion report delivers verdicts on Kiwi clothing brands
Photo credit: Newshub.

Kowtow founder Gosia Piatek said it feels "wonderful" to have been given an A grade.

"It is a grade that is well deserved by us for ensuring that we truly have a sustainable and ethical production chain from seed to garment. It is a benchmark grade for the industry to follow and we are proud to be leaders in this field and an example that you can do business in a fair and sustainable manner," Ms Piatek said.

"The Ethical Fashion Report is a comprehensive report that highlights how a fashion design business can improve transparency, wages, working conditions and sustainability in the production chain. There is a lot to learn from and keeps you accountable, which is important in this industry."

Hallensteins and Glassons did well in the latest report with the brands moving from a B- to B+ grade within a year.

Hallensteins Glassons group CEO Mark Goddard said: "We're very pleased that Baptist have acknowledged the work we've been doing, it's been an important process over the last 12 months."

He said "anything that raises awareness of ethical and sustainable sourcing is a good thing".

Clothing designer Karen Walker said the label didn't engage with the report because it's more suited to larger companies and she wanted to direct her resources to get on with improving her systems and processes.

"The Baptist World Aid Australia/Tearfund New Zealand's survey is designed to help consumers when they purchase from fast fashion giants such as H&M, Zara and Kmart and is not best suited to our company which seldom makes more than 100 of any particular style of garment," she said.

She commended the work of the Tearfund and Baptist World Aid Australia, and said she was grateful for the insight her label received when it took part and scored a B+ last year.

But Ms Walker said: "There is nothing more misleading than a bit of information or an A-F grade without context." 

She outlined her label's approach to social responsibility including having a specialised social responsibility consultant, a highly qualified auditor who checks its Chinese ready-to-wear partners 12-40 times each year, and an endorsement from the Child Labor Free Foundation.

"I feel strongly about, and take full responsibility for, how we engage with, treat and care for all those our brand impacts upon. I also take the responsibility of running an ethical and environmentally responsible fashion brand seriously. It is my name on the label," she said.

Ethical fashion report delivers verdicts on Kiwi clothing brands
Photo credit: Getty

Trelise Cooper was given an F after it chose not to engage with the report, but the label says the grade it was given isn't an accurate reflection of its ethical standards or behaviour.

"Tearfund demanded an arbitrary, limited timeframe for a very intense and detailed report that we simply could not meet. We volunteered to participate instead in the following year which they did not accept," a spokesperson said in a statement.

"Trelise Cooper Group has developed an Ethical Code of Conduct to ensure workers are not exploited. This covers key issues of fair living wages, child labour, hours of work, justice, safety, diversity and we require all employers, our suppliers and manufacturers to work within the code."

Although Max chose not to engage with the report, a spokesperson said it lists on its websites the ways that it approaches social responsibility, and regularly audits its factories to ensure they are in line with wage and labour legislation.

The Warehouse said it's committed to improving its ethical sourcing programme, and prefers to provide information directly to its customers and the public through its annual report than to engage with the Tearfund report.

Barkers Clothing managing director Jamie Whiting said the company isn't happy withs its C+ grade, which was the highest for a first-time participant, but says the company believes in the cause.

"We do not necessarily believe that the report and the grade fairly reflects the actual efforts, transparency, values and ethics we have across our supply chain," Mr Whiting said.

"An example is one of Barkers best, highest audit certified suppliers has worked with us for less than five years so in the survey this decreased our rating, yet their standards are exceptional," he said.

"We know every single factory personally, our team personally visits our suppliers several times a year and we have outstanding relationships with all of our partners. We know first hand their values on ethics, employee welfare, working conditions, manufacturing quality, material sourcing and so on."

RUBY general manager Emily Miller-Sharma said the label's D+ grade was "disappointing" and "highlighted what we need to to work on".

"RUBY team members, including myself, visit all of our factories both in China and New Zealand regularly. We've seen the facilities, we know the workers, they're part of the RUBY family," she said.

"As it stands, our auditing process does not meet the requirements set by Tearfund, so right now, our focus is to redress this."

The full report is available here