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Australian Christian charity Baptist World Aid is a divisive figure in the fashion industry.
Each year, the organisation publishes a report claiming to shed light on what fashion brands are doing to address forced labour, child labour and exploitation.
This year, approximately 83% of companies listed in the 2017 Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report engaged directly with the not-for-profit organisation, according to advocacy manager Gershon Nimbalker.
Since its first report in 2013/14, the organisation has urged companies to disclose their international factories and production partners or receive a public dressing down.
Nimbalker says the report’s growing popularity is due to consumer demand for transparency.
“The thing to note is that public expectation has just shifted so much in the past four to five years.
“It was once common practice for businesses to say: ‘This is commercial in confidence and we don't need to share this. There is no legal requirement to share it so why would we do it, particularly if we are privately listed.’
“That has shifted. Consumers, we now know, are interested in how their clothes are made and how the people making them are being treated.”
However, there are still brands which remain firm on confidentiality and elect not to reveal their supply chain. Many of these companies receive a mandatory F ranking, indicating they have failed.
Nimbalker says the reason for this is to warn the public they offer little, to no, information on their sources of supply.
“A low level, an F grade for example, this means there is no publicly available information about the supply chain practices that the company may be practising in.
“A very low level of transparency might be a statement that is quite vague and not quite so specific about what they are doing.”
While the organisation has, at times, been called into question for its own ethical reporting methods, Nimbalker insists those receiving poor ranking only make up a handful of the majority.
“Companies that aren’t disclosing, they are a dying breed and they wont be allowed to do that for very long.
“It is a very small handful of companies that will bring that up or express that.
“The vast majority, more that 80%, find engaging with the benchmarking process a really productive experience that helps guide their polices and their practices and improve the way the engage with their suppliers and therefore improve the welfare of their workers.”
Nimbalker claims the aim is not to 'shame' companies for not sharing information but rather ensure consumers are made aware of the lack of information made available to them.
“I guess our main point there is that the only people that hold that information about how they are managing the labour rights in the supply chains are the companies themselves.
“So without that information, consumers and the public simply cannot know that the company is investing sufficiently to make sure workers are protected and we think that is a huge problem.
“If you don't know that information how can you make informed decisions about that and we wanted to flag that and point that out.”
Nimbalker says many brands which have received an F ranking in the past, revisit Baptist World Aid as a means of improving their level of transparency.
“David Jones once upon a time got an F grade, came back and recognised consumer expectations have shifted.
“The consumers want them to be transparent and they start the journey. We celebrate them and support them with what they do to improve their transparency and better yet to improve the systems they have in place.”
David Jones ethical sourcing manager Jaana Quaintance-James says the F ranking was generated due to initial confusion surrounding Baptist's intentions.
“I don't think the questionnaire was received by the right person at the right time.
“It was just a matter of timing. I personally wasn’t here at the time but it wasn't reflective of what was happening at the time, rather we just didn't respond.”
Since then, the retailer has made strides to improve its sourcing transparency, initiating a five year plan which is currently in its second year.
“Well we obviously recognised that we needed to be talking more about what we are doing in this area," Quaintance-James says.
“One of the first things was putting together a specialist team. Because it is a complex program that we have here and a complex supply chain so we needed a dedicated focus on it.
“Then we developed a fairly ambitious and all-encompassing five year strategy for managing ethical sourcing.”
Quaintance-James explains the strategy, while having many varying facets, has focused heavily on ensuring visibility around the company’s own private label.
“We've focused on our private label, gaining full traceability of manufacturing location, rolling out an audit program on that supply chain and working closely with vendors to resolve issues.
“On our branded supply chain, we've engaged 90% of that supply chain to understand their own systems and polices in place to manage these issues and we have been actively engaging to bring those vendors along on this journey and build their capabilities to manage these issues, where we identify when there is a need to do that. 99.2% of those vendors are also signed up to our code of conduct.”
The early results have been positive, with consumer engagement on social media tripling around ethical fashion posts.
Similarly to David Jones, Cotton On has also engaged with Baptist after receiving a D grade in the report's first year.
Cotton On Group sustainability manager Adam Lloyd says the company has continued to improve year-on-year.
“I think the most recent report, 2017, the group got an A-, something that we are very proud of and it has moved from what was initially a D.
“It is also worth noting that Cotton On's own program is 10 years old now. So although they've become a more recent partner in the ethical journey, it is fair to say we were well underway prior to that.”
Lloyd says a key focus of the current program is a complete map of Cotton On's entire supply chain. He says a significant volume of product is managed by a handful of suppliers.
“Roughly around 20 odd suppliers do over 60% of our business. That helps us quite a lot because it is not as diverse as perhaps others might be.
“We've committed to a goal of December 2018 to map and disclose our end-to-end sourcing right down to raw materials and that's a pretty big call. The last update was in April and that was 100% of what we call our first tier and first tier sort of captures CMT.”
Cotton On is also expecting that by 2021, 100% of the company's cotton will be produced and sourced though the Better Cotton Initiative, with it currently sitting at 4-5%.
While the Baptist report is beginning to play a more vital role in the industry, it does not come without its own set of challenges. One of which is time and effort on the end of the company being assessed, Quaintance-James explains.
“It takes significant resources and time to provide the resources in the way they need it and it's not a small consideration.
“It is quite time intensive. We have done it a number of times now so it's probably not as hard but it does take quite a lot of time. They send it to us usually in October/November and they expect the final submission will be made in February.”
Lloyd echoes a similar concern but believes that as the industry continues to develop and change, the current means of assessment will need to be modified.
“Are there better ways of doing it? Look, over time the methodologies will need to be looked at as the entire industry gets more progressive about it.
“I think the key for us is that we want to collaborate with these people and learn what we can from them. They have got great knowledge in this space and we want them to be a partner in the journey as well. Because it is literally and truly a journey and the only way to move forward is to collaborate with all the parties involved.”