No one pays living wages - lessons from the Ethical Fashion Guide

No one pays living wages - lessons from the Ethical Fashion Guide

I decided this year to commit myself to not purchasing new clothes for my kids where I was unsure of or concerned about the ethical impacts of their production - particularly when it comes to human rights issues.

This, it turns out, is a very hard ask!

As I set myself to research which brands were good ethical options, I first turned to a couple of sources that I have used in the past for ethical shopping, starting with Baptist World Aid's Ethical Fashion Guide. I recalled seeing an infographic around on social media a while ago that listed some big brands in the top tier (i.e. most ethical options), so I thought I should have some luck finding something on their list!

Ethical Fashion Guide top brands

Just as I had remembered, heading to their website, in the 'top 20%' of brands, I found companies like Kmart, Target, Bonds, H&M, Country Road and Zara. Something didn't sit right with me, as I felt many of these brands are deep within the belly of the 'fast fashion' industry - and if I can walk into Kmart and pick up a kids T-shirt for $2-3, how can they possibly afford to be producing them ethically?

Perplexed, I searched around the Fashion Guide website for more information. Finally I found what I was looking for, after having to provide my full name, email and phone number (!)… I received by email the full guide along with the appendices, which contained companies' scores on the actual questions they were rated on.Ethical Fashion Guide Appendix

Ahh, at last, cold hard data!

So, here are some things I learned by looking at the data behind the Ethical Fashion Guide.

1. The top tier of brands still mostly have woeful scores

In order to make it into the top tier, brands only need to reach an overall score of 50. That's out of 100. That's just barely a pass mark.

Only 3 brands make it above 60% - Mighty Good Basics, Patagonia and AS Colour. The rest are between 50 and 60, which means there is a huge amount of scope for them to be extremely questionable in a number of areas, even though they may be a "top 20%" company.

2. Most brands do reasonably well on policies & tracing, average on environmental sustainability, and abysmal on human rights and living wages.

Let's take Kmart & Target as an example. Here's how they earn their total of 58 points:

Category Points earned Points earned for Points lost for
Policies & Governance 6/6 Having a code of conduct and putting people in charge of human rights and environmental sustainability.
Tracing & Risk 13/15 Knowing their suppliers, making the list public, assessing supply chain risks.
Supplier relations & human rights 18/34 Training and monitoring of suppliers at some stages of production, having a gender equality policy, having a process to respond to child labour if identified. Weak/opaque supplier relationships at some stages of production. No unannounced audits, and audit results aren't published. There is minimal action taken on issues (wages/overtime) raised from audits.
Worker empowerment 7/25 They have publicly committed to eventually paying living wages (with dates and milestones), and most factories have "projects working on it" No factories currently pay living wages. Workers are not made aware of their rights, there are limited unions, and there is limited ability for workers to raise complaints.
Environmental sustainability 12/20 Using mostly sustainable fibres. Lots of "partial progress" on issues around water, chemicals, emissions and waste. Only partial progress.

Personally, I feel that many of the points earned by the "top 20%" brands are earned for knowing how to "talk the talk" on ethics, but without actually taking action on the ground. Points tend to be from things companies can do to tick a box, rather than things like actually paying living wages, and empowering workers.

3. Almost no brands pay living wages

Looking at the pages of the fashion guide appendix that outline wage issues, it's just a sea of zeros. I was shocked to see such little progress, when it feels like we've been talking about the importance of this for the past 10 years. There are only a small handful of companies that do pay living wages, and mostly not in all their factories. This is the full list of companies that pay some living wages, out of a total of 120 companies:

% of facilities that are paid living wages
Company Final stage production Inputs Production Raw Materials Production
AS Colour 1-25% 0% 0%
Country Road Group 1-25% 0% 0%
Culture Kings 26-50% 0% 0%
David Jones 1-25% 0% 0%
Factory X 1-25% 0% 0%
Hallenstein Glasson 1-25% 0% 0%
Hanesbrands (Bonds) 1-25% 1-25% 0%
Mighty Good Basics 100% 100% 0%
Nobody Denim 51-75% 0% 0%
Nudie Jeans Co 1-25% 1-25% 1-25%
Patagonia 26-50% 1-25% 0%
Workwear Group 1-25% 0% 0%

This is 12 out of around 120 companies. So only 10% of the companies surveyed pay living wages in a SMALL portion of their factories.

And most of those ranked in the top 20% most ethical brands don't pay living wages at all, anywhere.

4. If you want to shop truly ethically, look beyond the mainstream brands.

Most brands big enough to make it on lists like the BWA ethical shopping guide are ultimately driven by their profits more than their desire to be sustainable.

But there are other options out there, beyond the mainstream!

One option is to shop for clothes made in Australia. These tend to be more pricey, as they are paying Australian wages after all. But you can feel a lot more comfortable that those clothes are made fairly. Ethical Clothing Australia is one place you can go to find a list.

Another option is to shop from brands where ethical sourcing is baked into their purpose from the start. These can be hard to find, as there's endless greenwashing out there and almost every brand says they're ethical and sustainable. To be certain, you need to look closely at their About pages, with a critical mind. I have a list of a few options on this page.

5. Shopping secondhand is another excellent option

No matter what the origin story of a piece of clothing is, if someone has thrown it out into a clothing bin, then you in buying it (e.g. from an op shop, or online like at my store) are making a great ethical decision.

By taking that item and giving it a second life on you or your child:

  • You're not creating any new injustice,
  • You're not adding any demand into the system for those unfairly-made clothes,
  • You're saving it from being sent to landfill.

Buying secondhand lets you shop ethically without having to spend a fortune, and it's getting easier with online options available! I hope my site can make this option more feasible, and if you can't find what you're looking for here, I have a list of some other similar sites here.

It was a bit of a depressing exercise getting to the bottom of this data, but it confirmed for me that I need to keep taking this seriously, and not just assume that brands are improving. My approach for now is to keep buying secondhand wherever possible, and where I really need to buy something new, to be willing to spend the time and money to make a better buying decision.

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