The Ethics behind the Ethical Fashion Report

Every year, the Ethical Fashion Report commends brands for making efforts to combat unethical behaviours in the industry, including forced and child labour as well as worker exploitation, while other brands are condemned for the lack of engagement with these issues. The report is presented much like a scorecard, with brands taking greater efforts given higher marks, guiding potential collaborators, investors and consumers towards more ethical partnerships.

Companies ratings are derived from the information they choose to provide to the organisation. If they do not participate in the study, only easily accessible public information is considered resulting in a keyhole image of these companies which has been perceived by many as unjust slandering.

New Zealand brands have been highly involved in the ethics report with labels such as Kowtow receiving an A+ grade for their efforts towards building a sustainable future for their workers. Gosia Piatek, Founder and Creative Director of the brand released a statement celebrating their grading. "As designers, we’re responsible for the entire lifetime of a garment, and that starts with the conditions of how it was made. The report asks brands to look into their manufacturing and ensure best practices are followed, and we believe that only positive change can come from that.”

While the efforts of these companies are commendable, other brands who have not engaged with the report have been dragged through the mud, not because their practices do not reflect the same ethics, but because those practices are not made transparent to the organisation.

Tearfund and Baptist World Aid Australia, the organisations behind the report, has stated that with or without the full picture they believe it is essential to publish the information they have available in order to properly inform consumers.

“Baptist World Aid Australia believes that it’s important that we grade companies even when they do not respond to the research process. If companies haven’t been transparent about what they are doing to uphold worker rights, then there is virtually no avenue for the public to feel confident that their products are being made in a way that is free of exploitation.”

However, the grading system they employ creates a bias for companies who engage with their research. The scorecard is based on assumptions rather than facts. If the facts are not made available to this organisation, does that give them the right to publish misleading information?

New Zealand brands Trelise Cooper and Farmers received an F grade in the latest Ethical Fashion Report, making headlines across a variety of news platforms. “Farmers, Trelise Cooper get an F for worker empowerment and wages from ethical report,” read the title of a Stuff article.

Trelise Cooper shared a media statement reassuring their customers of their engagement with ethical standards and condemning Baptist World Aid Australia and Tearfund for their report. “By participating in this report, we would be endorsing this style of deceptive reporting, which is not based on first-hand evidence gathering,” explained the brand. “We demand high standards -- not just in our products but also in the ethical conduct of the people who produce them. We think that monitoring of business conduct is important, but we apply those same high standards to reporting practices.”

Here the brand refer’s to the organisations’ mode of data collection. This process involves a selection of questions answered by the brands, with any required verifications being also provided by the participating brand. There are no on site visits of first-person witnessing as to the brand’s systems. Even participating brands are judged on the information they do or do not provide. Their physical operations have no baring. This information was confirmed by a member of Tearfund who expressed that the report measured brand’s systems in place not their actual conditions.

Farmers also shared a statement regarding their views of the report. “Farmers operates all of its business in an ethical manner and is committed to improving social, ethical and environmental standards throughout its supply chain and in all aspects of its operations,” said a spokesperson. “The rating Farmers received from the Tearfund Ethical Fashion Report is a direct result of choosing not to participate in the survey.”

Receiving a failing grade can be devastating for a brand and may not reflect their actual operations. Grading a non-responsive label in the same manner as one providing information is the same as marking an Olympic runner against a pedestrian who did not choose to be involved in the race. An NA grading would be far more appropriate for non-participating brands.

Apparel Magazine spoke with Claire Hart, the Education and Advocacy Leader at Tearfund regarding the controversies of the report. Hart conceded that being limited to publicly available information regarding their non-responsive brand's means there is "No real way of knowing if it [the grades] accurately reflect their systems." By grading systems that the organisations, admittedly, do not have substantial information about, makes the report an inaccurate representation of their systems.

Hart shared with Apparel that in the case of non-responsive brands the grading system could be described as measuring a brand's transparency regarding its supply chain, rather than it's operations. Non-responsive brands such as Karen Walker still scored a B on the organisation's report card, despite not participating in their study due to the information available on public domain. Of which Hart quoted to demonstrate the organisation’s lack of bias towards participating brands.

For Tearfund, transparency is not to be undervalued. "An absence of information does not mean we should assume everything is fine," related Hart. While this may be true, the Ethical Fashion Report seems to take a polarising approach, assuming that a lack of transparency is equivocal to unethical behaviours.

The Ethical Fashion Report seems more invested in their grading system than the legitimacy behind the grades they are giving out. By reporting on a company’s operations without any insight into them gives the report an unjust feeling. The report has a host of potential to elicit positive change in the industry, however without currently brands are being punished for their lack of transparency, which despite harsh gradings from the organisation, is not equivalent to unethical systems.