Did someone die for my new cardigan?
The recent factory collapse in Bangladesh got me thinking about where my clothing comes from. As consumers, our most effective tools for change are our credit cards. So how would you know if what you were wearing was ethically sourced?
Just as a thought experiment, I decided to research some of the brands I have been wearing the last few days. They’re a fairly typical mix of high street brands, most of which you can buy either in Australia or online. In no particular order:
- River Island
- Marks & Spencer
- Target Australia own brand
River Island not only have a global ethical policy, they have taken a specific position on work sourced in Bangladesh. River Island reserves the right to terminate the contracts of suppliers who violate policies. They have been a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) since 2008. The ETI Base Code’s key principles are:
- Employment is freely chosen.
- Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are respected.
- Working conditions are safe and hygienic.
- Child labour shall not be used.
- Living wages are paid.
- Working hours are not excessive.
- No discrimination is practised.
- Regular employment is provided.
- No harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed.
Marks & Spencer label all their products with country-of-origin. They have had a set of Global Sourcing Principles since 1999. They have been a member of ETI since 1999.
Gap Inc. owns five brands – Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Piperlime, and Athleta. Gap Inc. states that all their branded product is held to the social and environmental standards outlined in their Code of Vendor Conduct.
Target is not affiliated with Target in the US. Target Australia has had an Ethical Sourcing Code in place since 2005. The code aims to ensure products sold in Target are produced in safe working conditions and that the basic human rights of workers are respected.Target states that they will will monitor compliance with this Code, and may visit factories to ensure compliance. Target states that violations of the Code will be reported to the vendor for follow up and corrective action. Vendors are required to cooperate with the entire process. Where there are egregious violations and/or the vendor/factory does not demonstrate a willingness to comply, Target reserves the right to discontinue business with the vendor/factory.
H&M don’t sell into Australia yet. I bought my clothes in Canada, so I looked at the Canadian website. H&M is one of the best performers for transparency. They publish a full list of supplier factories with whom they have a long-term direct business relation (about 95% of their order volume), have a Code of Conduct and actively work with their supplier base to improve social and environmental practices. They have an active focus on conditions in Bangladesh.
Rivers used to be a well-respected Australian brand. A few years ago they changed direction to become a low-cost importer. Rivers now publish no information at all about the origin of their clothing, or whether they comply with any kind of ethical sourcing initiative. I have emailed them to ask, but haven’t heard back yet.
Berlei belongs to the giant Pacific Brands, along with Bonds, Clarks, Dunlop, Yakka and many other iconic Australian brands. So their code of conduct is influential. Pacific Brands have a program for auditing our supply chain for adherence to ethical practices spanning labour rights, safety, quality and the environment. Without formally signing up, they endorse the ETI Base Code. However their policy is not as forceful as other companies, and they operate through coaching and guidance rather than setting hard requirements. They do however have a firm position on sandblasting of denim.
Sussan, Sportsgirl and Suzanne Grae are part of the Australian Sussan Group, wholly owned by Naomi Milgrom. Considering Ms Milgrom’s impressive credentials, it is disappointing that none of the three brands provide any information on their websites about their supply chain or their attitude to ethical sourcing. More transparency required.
Flower and PaperScissors, also Australian, are similarly opaque about where and how their clothing is manufactured.
And it’s not just the high street. Many high-fashion Australian brands (such as Sass&Bide, Alannah Hill, and Collette Dinnigan) are equally silent.
And the take-away?
I have re-thought some of my usual clothing brands because of their lack of transparency (so-to-speak). It’s a small sample, but there is a perfect correlation between disclosure and being listed on a stock exchange somewhere. It seems that corporate social responsibility is a much bigger deal for a listed company than for a private company.
If your favourite label comes from a private company who doesn’t publish their sourcing policies, ask the question. If you feel uncomfortable asking, or you’re not getting a good answer, think about switching your loyalty to someone who does disclose. And where they do disclose, read the policies. Do they have teeth? Will the brand terminate a supplier for non-compliance? Does the brand maintain local offices and actively outreach to suppliers, or do they just have a head office policy statement with no resources behind it?
Now I’m not suggesting any of these brands are doing anything they shouldn’t when managing their supply chains. And I happy to post a response from anyone who wants to set the record straight. But if you are sourcing ethically, you should say so. And if you aren’t, your customers deserve to know.
For more information about a particular company, try the Shop Ethical website or the Responsible Sourcing Network. For listed companies, read their annual reports and find what they actually spend on supplier outreach and sustainable supply chain initiatives.