The Good Life?

Empowerment Over Exploitation

In April 2019, one of our Ethical Fashion Report researchers, Jessica Tatzenko, was invited to speak to Cotton On Group suppliers at their annual supplier’s conference in Ningbo, China. These suppliers were factory managers who delivered clothing and Jessica had the chance to share findings from our Report with suppliers from China and Bangladesh, focusing on consumer expectations around ethical sourcing. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak to the people who are directly engaged with workers in the garment industry. 

This is what Jessica told Cotton On’s factory managers about Australian consumers:

We’ve recently published our 6th annual Ethical Fashion Report. We started back in 2013 because Baptist World Aid realised that people were concerned about issues of child labour, forced labour and exploitation in the production of their clothes. They wanted to know that the brands they were buying from were making an effort to ensure workers making their clothes were being treated fairly and working in safe conditions.

Baptist World Aid started assessing companies on the systems they had in place to protect workers and ensure their clothes are being ethically made. Since the first Report came out in 2014, our research has grown significantly, reflecting the increased consumer interest in ‘ethical fashion’. We have grown from assessing 41 companies to 130 companies in our most recent 2019 Report. This represents millions of workers whose lives have been improved!

The Report receives significant media attention each year, with many stories shared online, on radio and on TV. Hundreds of thousands of people have accessed our research across the years and use it to inform their purchasing decisions. Our research has found that 86% of the general population in Australia think companies should be addressing social and environmental issues and consumers are increasingly purchasing based on these values.

We’re seeing consumers become increasingly passionate about four key areas: traceability, transparency, living wages and the environment.

  • Traceability: increasingly consumers are not just interested in who made their clothes at the final stage of production, but they care about working conditions throughout the entire supply chain, from raw materials right through to cut-make-trim. Risks of child and forced labour are more significant in the supply chain, at cotton farms and fabric mills, where brands are not tracing.

  • Transparency: Consumers see transparency as a key indicator or a brands credibility when it comes to ethical sourcing. They want brands to share where their clothes are being made and what they are doing to ensure workers are being treated well. If brands do not disclose, or are unwilling to disclose, what they are doing to ensure that workers are not exploited in their supply chains, then it becomes near impossible for consumers and the public to know if these brands are investing sufficiently to mitigate these risks.

  • Living Wages: The payment of living wages is becoming one of the most important indicators when it comes to assessing the treatment of workers in the apparel industry. While it is a complex issue to address, the ability for workers to receive a living wage within normal working hours is of chief concern to several consumers, with several organisations campaigning on this issue.

  • Environmental Management: We are seeing consumers expand their expectations of what it means to be a truly ‘ethical company’ to not only cover labour rights, but also environmental management. Issues like water use, chemical management and emissions are a priority, as well as sustainable fibres.

The new Modern Slavery Act means that it is now a legal requirement for Australian companies to report on their supply chain and monitor how clothing is produced. This is great progress and brings visibility to how people are being impacted. Companies are now legally responsible for their supply chain practices. The extent to which companies have traced their facilities and their level of transparency will determine how prepared they are for this legislation.

Susy Lee is the Advocacy Coordinator at Baptist World Aid.