If you found out your favourite shirt was made by the exhausted hands of a child forced to work in a sweatshop, would you still wear it?
A new report released on Wednesday has exposed which Australian and international brands are working to stop slavery, child labour and worker exploitation in their supply chains – and which are turning a blind eye.
Disturbingly, the shame file shows nine of 10 fashion companies could not even confirm if the workers producing their clothes were being paid enough money to live.
This means millions of people are being forced to work from sunrise to sunset to put together the clothes on sales racks – and they still don’t have enough money to afford a decent meal.
The report, by Baptist World Aid Australia exposes the worst-behaving companies, many of which refused to confess where and how their clothes are made.
The encouraging news is that among the 480 brands assessed by the Christian charity organisation, Australian labels Cotton On, Kookai and Country Road emerged as some of the report’s top performers, all receiving a grade of A-.
Australian brand Outland Denim received an outstanding score of A+ for producing ethically sourced jeans while also offering sustainable employment to women who have escaped sex trafficking in Cambodia.
The company shot to international fame last year when the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle wore a pair of Outland Denim jeans during her tour of Australia with Prince Harry.
I just received a press release from Outland Denim on the Meghan Effect. "Now thanks to “Meghan Effect”, it will be possible to employ a further 15 to 30 seamstresses in its Cambodian production house in coming weeks, for which recruitment has already begun."
— Mad About Meghan (@MadAboutMeghan) October 26, 2018
Researchers in the report assessed three stages of the supply chain: Raw materials, resources and the conditions of the factories where the garments are made.
High grades were given to companies with labour rights management systems that, if implemented properly, should reduce the extent of worker exploitation.
The report found that 38 per cent of the 130 apparel companies assessed had improved their overall grade within a 12-month period in areas such as gender equality, responsible purchasing practices, child and forced labour, and transparency.
Baptist World Aid Australia corporate responsibility researcher Jessica Tatzenko said it was encouraging to see household names such as Kookai and Country Road listed among the top companies championed for prioritising the wellbeing of their workers.
“It’s great to see that more Australian companies are understanding the journey of how their clothes came to be,” Ms Tatzenko told The New Daily.
She said most of the companies who failed to make the grade chose not to engage with the report, leaving researchers no choice but to judge their progress using only public information.
Country Road Group’s sustainability manager Lucy King said the company was making “great progress” in tracing the raw materials used in its clothes all the way back to the farm.
“For all our key materials, such as cotton and leather, we’ve looked at driving greater traceability through the supply chain,” Ms King said.
The Country Road Group owns a number of well-known labels, including Witchery, Trenery, Mimco and Politix, and sources its clothes from countries such as China, Italy, Indonesia and Vietnam.
“At a minimum, we check our suppliers meet our high ethical standards,” Ms King said.
So how bad is human slavery today?
More than 40 million people work in slavery today, according to Stop the Traffik Australia.
While the global fashion industry is a significant employer, sadly it is also a source of exploitation for millions of people.
Many of them are forced to work 16-hour days, seven days a week with little or no pay, and they are often subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Stop the Traffik Australia director Carolyn Kitto said thankfully the Modern Slavery Act legislated in federal Parliament last year would be a game changer for the fashion industry.
“The Act will ensure fashion brands are prioritising transparency, and consumers will be able to see what their most-loved labels are doing to address modern slavery in their supply chain,” Ms Kitto said.
“But more importantly, the Act has impacted the lives of millions of workers and their families.”
What can you do to help?
Ms Tatzenko said shoppers should ask themselves some important questions before buying a new item of clothing:
- Do I need this?
- Is this something I need long term?
- Does the brand perform well in the Baptist World Aid Australia report?
“Try to educate yourself about what it means to have an ethical supply chain,” Ms Tatzenko said.
“Customers’ voices speak loudly; don’t forget that you have an impact on the companies making your clothes.”