How ethical are New Zealand clothing brands?
New Zealand fashion brands are getting better at ensuring workers are not being exploited to make their clothes, according to the latest Ethical Fashion Report.
The report grades 330 major global and domestic fashion brands and 106 apparel companies from A to F on their policies, supplier traceability and transparency, auditing practices and worker empowerment.
The New Zealand brands scored a median grade of B-, beating the international average of C+.
The Ethical Fashion Report was commissioned by Baptist World Aid Australia who partnered with international NGO, Tearfund, includes 12 New Zealand brands.
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New Zealand's top performers, Kowtow and Liminal Apparel, scored A's, while Farmer's refusal to engage with the report and lack of publicly available information landed it an F.
Glassons has continued to improve to a B- from a C+ last year and a D- in 2015.
In the past year the number of companies publishing full supplier lists has risen to 26 per cent, compared to 16 per cent last year.
Karen Walker was the most improved New Zealand brand, raising last year's score of a C to a B+ this year.
Tearfund's education and advocacy coordinator Claire Hart said this was "really above average" and due to the company's efforts over the last year to better trace their supply chain.
"In some cases they actually know who made the silk they use and where it comes from," said Hart.
Brands and retailers, like Farmers, The Warehouse and Icebreaker that refused to engage with the research were marked by an asterix in the report.
Icebreaker chief managing officer Carla Murphy said the company was disappointed by its D- rating because it indicated poor ethical performance rather reflecting a decision not to take part in the report.
Murphy said the "arms-length" report did not involve any independent validation or site visits, and it did not reflect Icebreaker's direct engagement with with its supply chain.
The Warehouse said in a statement it did not participate because it felt the comparative ranking was "potentially misleading for customers" and that the corporate social responsibility rating system should not be taken as an equivalent to "actual working conditions".
Farmers did not respond to requests for comment.
Karen Walker said her company had put more resources into testing its systems around manufacturing and sourcing over the past 18 months.
She said most businesses that think they are being 100 per cent ethical would not be able to account for, "every worker or every single fabric, button, zip and trim from every supplier they use" even if it was manufactured on-shore.
Hart said the trend of "fast fashion" meant more contractors were outsourcing to subcontractors without brand awareness.
Because brands often did not own their production facility, they had to pressure their suppliers to ensure suppliers further down the chain treated their workers in an appropriately, Hart said.
The report found 42 per cent of companies were paying fairer wages to workers, but Hart said that was the hardest area to get traction in.
Worker empowerment remained the lowest scoring area, with a median grade of D+ in the report.
Tearfund education and advocacy Manager Murray Sheard visited Southern India to see some of the conditions garment workers were exposed to.
Sheard said women he talked to were often promised a three-year lump sum payment in addition to their wages to use as a dowry.
But after working for three years, the women were often cheated out of the payment by the companies, Sheard said.
Sheard said there was a village saying that you could tell what colour would be fashionable in Paris next season by looking at the colour of the factory runoff.
Women in the garment mills often worked 12 to 16 hours a day, in hot and dangerous conditions and suffered respiratory complaints from breathing in the cotton that they were weaving into sheets and abdominal pains from the heat, Sheard said.
"The rate of infertility has gone up among girls who work in the mills due to the conditions, which is a massive betrayal when you've been sold the job on the idea of marriage and family, which is hugely important in Hindu culture."
Sheard said more companies needed to paying a living wage, which could add just 36 cents to the cost of a T-shirt.
The number of companies tracing the full extent of their supply chain continues to be a small figure.
The report found 7 per cent of companies knew where their cotton was coming from, but 45 per cent were now seeking to trace their cotton suppliers.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) helps companies trace raw materials and works with farmers to increase yield.
Kathmandu worked with BCI and Fairtrade Cotton to trace 80 per cent of its cotton supply. Kathmandu received an overall grade of B+.
The ethical fashion report was first released by Baptist World Aid Australia in 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1134 garment workers.
How do they rate:
Liminal Apparel: A
Cotton On Group: A-
Karen Walker: B+
Forever New: B
The Warehouse: C
Fusion Retail Brands: C-