28 Oct 2020

Covid fashion report ranks 11 New Zealand brands

10:38 am on 28 October 2020

Tearfund's annual ethical fashion report is out today, showing just how transparent or murky large local fashion houses are about their supply chains during a pandemic.

Shoppers looking at a rail of clothes in a mall (Stock photo).

Photo: 123RF

Each year the charity compiles a list of brands and grades them - this time the A to F grades are gone and companies are ranked for their role in protecting vulnerable workers during Covid-19.

But four household-name retailers - Barkers, Max, Farmers and The Warehouse - chose not to provide information for the Covid Fashion Report.

The report ranks 11 New Zealand fashion brands for their efforts to protect workers in their supply chains - including the four that chose not to provide information.

Department store Farmers did not take part in the research and was ranked lowest alongside Barkers and Max - with no evidence they identified or supported vulnerable workers.

Farmers' managing director David Norman said he did not see the need to participate and questioned the report's merit.

"I'd like to think that when you've been around for 111 years and you have your own direct sourcing that it goes without saying that we just do not deal with anybody that's not ethical."

He said Farmers bought apparel from different brands that each had their own processes.

"Where we are selling a branded product, we consider that the ethics of that product remain with the brand owner, not necessarily with Farmers."

Although Norman said Farmers had robust supply chain ethics, the Covid Fashion Report's researchers could not find evidence to show it was addressing immediate risks facing vulnerable workers in its supply chain.

Top marks

Retailers to gain top rankings included AS Colour, Hallenstein Glasson, Icebreaker, Kathmandu, Macpac, and Kmart.

Tearfund's corporate advocacy specialist Annie Newton-Jones was among researchers who asked the brands to show how they were meeting six commitments to protect vulnerable workers.

The global pandemic had been the biggest crisis the fashion industry had ever faced, disrupting entire supply chains and exposing vulnerable workers to more risk, she said.

"We saw Kiwi brands show that they really care about workers and were able to, despite being in a crisis, step up to the mark and show evidence that they were doing stuff across our commitment."

Another 18 smaller companies were invited to volunteer information but only one of those, Freeset T-Shirts, accepted - and gained a top ranking.

The four large fashion brands could not opt out.

Ethical fashion report hopes to motivate change in fashion industry

Ethical fashion report hopes to motivate change in fashion industry Photo: RNZ / YouTube

"We assess them on publicly available information, and so often with these companies when we do our assessments, there's a real lack of transparency. There's a real lack of information on their website, so that's why these companies end up with lower rankings or grades."

Newton-Jones said The Warehouse did not provide information, but has communicated to consumers online, showing it met some of the commitments.

Last year RNZ spoke to shoppers about the report, with many saying they do take notice of ethical issues when buying fashion.

Farmers, Trelise Cooper and the Baby Factory scored among the lowest the Tearfund report for 2019.

An argument for sustainability

At least one fashion industry expert believed only businesses with ethical supply chains would last the distance.

Think Business director Catherine van der Meulen worked for her family's business, Supre, for years, and now works in New Zealand helping retailers become more sustainable in what they produce.

"Consumers are becoming far more educated and definitely during a time of a global crisis are looking for as much information as possible. Where were our products made? Who made our products? [We are] more conscious about where our dollars are being spent."

Consumers need more information about supply chains and companies should participate in Tearfund's annual fashion report, she said.

"Businesses, to be able to stay in business for now and for the future, really need to share as much information as possible to make the industry and consumers trust in those organisations and want to make those purchases."

Glassons' mannequins.

Mannequins at Glassons, one of the top ranking chains. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Ethical supply chain 'vital' - retailer

Hallenstein Glasson was among companies given a top ranking.

Glassons New Zealand chief executive April Ward said its customers are aware of fashion companies' role in global supply chains and want transparency.

"More than ever we're seeing a shift towards wanting to be educated about the role Glassons plays in creating positive change. We're proud of our continued efforts to promote better environmental outcomes and worker welfare and are fully committed to constantly improving."

She said the importance of supporting suppliers, who in turn support their workers, was particularly important during Covid-19.

"We have always valued our supply partners, most of whom we have worked with for many years. And maintaining an ethical supply chain, particularly during the pandemic, is vital."

The owner of Barkers and Max did not respond to RNZ in time for deadline.

Tearfund said its annual fashion report was planned to return to A to F grades next year.

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