Australian Fashion Brands Rated C For Ethics

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Report finds industry still needs to lift its game in global effort to stamp out worker exploitation in developing nations.

The 2018 Ethical Fashion Report graded 114 apparel companies, revealing Australian brands had achieved a median C rating. The result is an overall improvement and closes the gap on overseas counterparts, which achieved a median score of B-. The report has been released by Baptist World Aid a week before the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh in 2013 and sparked a push for change in safety standards across the industry.

Since the factory collapse, the fashion industry has made some headway in improving supply chain transparency, the report finds. About 35% of companies now publish full direct supplier lists. Brands fared badly on tackling workers' rights, with only 5% able to prove they were paying all their workers a living wage. A further 12% showed they were paying some of their workers a living wage, while 70% of the industry is yet to take significant action to improve worker wages, according to the report.

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The report assesses a company's labour rights management system against 33 criteria. The tests cover three stages of the supply chain: the raw materials, inputs production and final manufacturing; higher grades reflect companies with labour rights management systems that would reduce worker exploitation if properly implemented.

Of the 61 Australian fashion brands listed, eight scored an F rating, including Bras N Things, Decjuba, Ally Fashion and Wish Designs, after failing to respond to Baptist World Aid's inquiries. Of the companies that did respond, a number of brands well-known in Australia received either a D or a D-. Roger David performed poorly. It failed in marks on its policies, worker empowerment and raw materials, and received a D- mark overall. Betts, Boohoo, and Valleygirl all received D or D- marks. Other brands had improved their performance considerably, including Cotton On, which received an A and topped the list for Australia-headquartered companies. Fast fashion brands such as Kmart, Jeanswest and Target all scored either a B or B+.

Baptist World Aid's advocacy manager, Gershon Nimbalker, said Australian brands had improved their performance in the most recent report. "When we first started the reports in 2013, Aussies were well behind their international brands, but it was a wake-up call for the industry," Nimbalker said. "We've seen them playing a pretty impressive game of catchup. Cotton On is one of the most iconic examples, they've worked closely with us to push themselves forward." The Baptist World Aid report is one of a number designed to publicly pressure fashion brands into improving workers' rights and ending slavery in their supply chains. Last year, Oxfam published a report revealing just four cents from every dollar Australians spend on clothing makes it back to workers in garment factories. The analysis, conducted by Deloitte, found that an increase of 1% to the price of clothing – or 20 cents more for a $20 T-shirt – would be enough to give garment workers a living wage.

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Australian fashion brands can face difficulties negotiating better rights in developing nations. Fashion Revolutions, a group attempting to drive reform in the industry, said it was complex issue that often pitted small Australian brands against foreign governments. "It's not an excuse, but it is really, really difficult," the group's national coordinator, Melinda Tually, said last year. "You're talking about brands negotiating, on their own, with governments. And brands in Australia are not the size of H&M." Nimbalker said consumers should vote with their wallet, checking the report for company scorecards. "If their favourite brands aren't doing enough, it's a great opportunity to reach out to them."       

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