The Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Guide: A Skeptic’s Appraisal

The Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Guide: A Skeptic’s Appraisal

A little over a week ago the 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide was published by Baptist World Aid Australia. As the name suggests, the report is a comprehensive review of the activities of Australia brands in line with ethical practices and sustainability. The Ethical Fashion Guide highlights which Australian brands are making positive strides and meeting these expectations, and those continuing to fall behind the line. 

The current report, Baptist World Aid’s sixth edition, is the largest to date, grading 130 apparel companies from A to F on the current systems and strategies in place to ethically manage their supply chains.

To measure this, the report examines the progress on four areas; Policies, Transparency and Traceability, Auditing and Supplier Relationships and Worker Employment. This year, in addition to these key areas in which companies have been graded in the past, Baptist Aid have included Environmental Management as their fifth grading criteria for the first time.  

On the one hand, what the report has accomplished is nothing short of epic. It has paved the way for the long journey towards sustainability by apparel companies. It has established a baseline of accountability for apparel. In my opinion, reports such as this send clear messages to key players in the apparel industry, keeping them aware that while we may not be able to close down their operations, there are people watching and monitoring their every move. 

A garment worker cutting fabric. Credit: Flickr

In this light then, this report signifies a remarkable progress in the development of the structure and framework upon which we can build a fashion industry where human and environmental sustainability is no longer taken for granted. 

Now this report signifies a higher level of progress and even though there remains a lot more work to be done, I heartily commend the work of Baptist World Aid so far. My praise however does not quite extend to the fashion brands because, in my opinion, and regardless of what they share on paper, the majority of the industry have failed to live up to ethical expectations.

My observation here is that clothing brands are eager to talk the talk but remain most unwilling to walk the ethical walk, and a pointer to this reality is the pattern of growth in the parameters. This year, 130 brands participated in the survey that enables Baptist World Aid to generate this report. Of that number, the report found 38% of companies have improved their overall grade, with a significant improvement across the industry in 79% of the areas assessed. These areas include development in gender equality, responsible purchasing practices, child and forced labour, and transparency. Over a third of brands were found to have improved from last year’s report, yet only five percent of companies can demonstrate they were actually paying a living wage to all workers at their final stage of production.

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It is my position that this is the case because such issues as gender equality and child labour are relatively easier to handle without the company having to spend any actual money. Now, anyone who is familiar with the practices of big brands and companies, would know that all it takes for a company to declare that it has “achieved gender parity” is a simple change in the job title of an employee. Rename their position “Chief Equality Officer” and broaden the scope of his or her duties to include such catchy phrases like the “reexamination of our approach to issues of gender and equality in the workplace” and afterwards; circulate a memo declaring the company’s “renewed commitment” to “gender equality”. This “new policy measure” will then be announced in the media, with the fashion press covering this “good news story” and earning the company another tick in the “transparency” box. 

Sang Min factory in Cambodia. Credit: ILO

This “lip-service” approach works pretty much every single time, whether as a defence against allegations of child labour, gender inequality, sexual harassment or traceability. On the other hand, when it comes to the actual payment of living wages, there is only one way out and that is to actually pay living wages. Nothing highlights the commitment towards a cause more than the ability to believe in and pay for it. Sadly, as in all other things, the most preferred option for most “ethically-minded” corporations is to run from one publication to the other, authoring press releases and series of “renewed commitments to ethical practices”. Phrases such as “rekindled devotion to pay living wagesor “the development of a living wage methodology” are nothing more than PR-speak for “we haven’t actually started paying our workers good wages and we won’t be making the decision to start anytime soon”. 

This easy-way-out attitude is displayed right across all the areas of the Baptist World Aid survey. The research collects and evaluates data from fashion companies using the following classification of the supply chain and across the following themes of social responsibility: 

  1. The first is “raw materials”; Cotton (farming), Wool, etc (husbandry, shearing etc) Crude Oil for synthetic fibres, plastics, etc (extraction, refining) 
  2. The second stage is “inputs production” which looks at Textiles production (ginning, spinning, knitting, dying, embroidery), Leather (tanning), Plastic (processing, moulding) 
  3. Then comes the Final Stage Production which is the Cut-Make-Trim (CMT) manufacturing (cutting, sewing, printing). 

From this classification, we see that Final Stage is nearest to clothing brands and retailers (and the easiest to influence) and conversely, the stage of raw materials is farthest. Overall progress may have been made by the clothing brands; but upon closer examination, I find that most of the ‘progress’ is at the final stage. Once the questions get beyond the final stage, past the “low-hanging fruit”, the number of positive answers plummet. This would have been excusable except that it has been shown that the raw materials stage is where it is most likely to have cases of forced labour, child labour and worker abuse. So one might wonder if this “progress” and focus isn’t awfully convenient for the brands. 

Journalist Awards depicting Child Labour in Pakistan. Credit: ILO via Flickr

All these may seem harsh but I do not hold companies as complete villains for this. As I wrote in “Unethical Fast Fashion: If We Don’t Buy It, They Won’t Make It” companies are established for the singular reason of profit and it is the responsibility of management to try to generate as much of this as possible. Such concepts as “triple bottom line” are society’s best attempts at imposing conscience on organisations that have none. It is probably natural and makes good business sense for these companies to obfuscate and paint themselves in the best possible light though at the same time, it is unto us as consumers and organisations such as Baptist World Aid to shine the light on all angles.

The problem I see with the Baptist World Aid report is not that the information presented to the readership is wrong, but that it is incomplete. While I do not suggest that the information provided by the companies in this survey were false, I believe there is something wrong with a system that sets the benchmark based on information provided by company representatives and board members of these companies only. I mean what else were they expected to do but cast their operations in positive lights?

This practice of relying on single narratives is not isolated to Baptist World Aid and other organisations that create such dedicated ‘ethical’ reports. Rather it is prevalent in the whole gamut of ethical and sustainable fashion. There is a recurring practice of inviting brands to take centre stage and tell the conscious community how ethical and awesome their brands are. Call me skeptical, but I really do not expect a brand representative to sit on a panel and tell us that his or her company buys cotton produced by forced labour. At least not until the company finds a spin or narrative that will further enhance their “commitment to transparency” or some other catchy crap phrase.

Better Factories of Cambodia doing an assessment in a factory in order to ensure that the factory are fully compliance with labour law. Credit-ILO
Better Factories of Cambodia doing an assessment in a factory in order to ensure that the factory are fully compliance with labour law. Credit: Flickr

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The way forward lies in the latin maxim, audi alterem partem meaning let the other party be heard. This doctrine of equity insists that all judgements on an issue be reserved until we hear the other party to better get the full picture. In this instance, this maxim would ensure that no report or assessment, no panel or discussion is carried out, which excludes the workers in these corporations. 

Even better would be a system which empowers and perhaps, funds the people most involved in this supply chain to create their own reports and assessments. A report that would be worth a good read would be a report presented by an organisation such as the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union. An additional benefit here would be that we get to measure what really matters; impact. When we factor in the opinions of the garment workers in reports such as this, then we can know for sure whether the much-vaunted policies of the fashion companies are actually achieving what they are intended to.

As I wrote here, one man’s ethical wages is another man’s peanut. We can measure all we want of policies on ethical wages. However, if these wages are not actually being paid, if these wages when paid does not cater to the workers and help them rise above poverty, then all we have done is an exercise in vanity metrics.

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Title image of Sang Min factory in Cambodia via ILO.

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