Baptist World Aid Report 2016: Being Ethical In An Unethical World, It's Complicated

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 years ago | Features

Image: Karlie Kloss by Ryan McGinley. Image source.

Baptist World Aid has just released its 2016 Australian Fashion Report and it painted a fairly dismal picture of many local retailers. Not least of which was Factory X — the company that owns Gorman and this year scored a big fat F in the report. Not only did the company score the lowest possible rating, though, but the score was also consistent across all categories measured. Since then, lots of people have called Gorman out on their practices via social media, causing the company to take swift action. Unfortunately though, this action came by way of an Instagram post that tapped into Fashion Revolution’s pre-existing marketing campaign: #WhoMadeMyClothes. Their image introduced us to Liao, a knitter at C.Partners factory in China. With a caption that said: “we are particularly proud of the ethically sourced non-mulesed merino knits Liao and his team have produced for Gorman for the last 4 years.” But judging from the comments below the photo, many of the brand’s usually devoted customers were far from impressed.

I think a big part of the reason why this issue has been particularly contentious for people is that, in many ways, Gorman seems to present itself as a fairly ethical brand. In the ‘sustainability’ section of their website, for example, Gorman says: “we are committed to the communities in which we live and operate, ensuring that we integrate good corporate behaviour into all aspects of our operations. We believe in looking beyond financial results and include social, environmental, and ethical indicators in the measure of our performance.” The company also makes reference to the strict evaluation process in place for their suppliers and counts ‘accountability’ and ‘sustainability’ among their core principles. It also points to their “use of organic, recycled or sustainable materials”. So it’s no wonder, really, that some people feel blindsided and outraged that Factory X scored an F across categories like ‘Knowing Your Suppliers’ and ‘Worker Empowerment’.

What this Gorman backlash demonstrates, above all else though, is that these issues are just so nuanced. On the one hand, Baptist World Aid’s report isn’t the be all and end all of shopping ethically. It aims to simplify very complex supply chain issues and, in doing so, becomes inherently flawed. But it also raises valuable conversation about ethical fashion and can inspire brands to do better. So while Gorman’s claims about using organic cotton and being committed to “social, environmental, and ethical indicators” in the measure of performance are certainly something to be celebrated, they also need to be backed up with the actions to prove it. And instead of tapping into a viral marketing campaign, I’d argue that a better way to tackle the issue would have been to deliver true transparency. To show people exactly what their supply chain is so that we, the customer, can decide for ourselves.

Calling out a brand like Gorman for their supply chain practices can be a productive thing, if approached in the right way. And if this week’s social media frenzy surrounding their parent company’s F-rating is anything to go by, then things are definitely looking up for ethical fashion in general. Because people are actually starting to care about these issues more and more; they are starting to demand it from their favourite brands and that can be very valuable in helping those companies take necessary steps forward. What we also need to be careful of, though, is playing too much into a culture of guilt and shame with these things. In other words, we all need to realise that individuals and businesses making an effort to be more ethical when it comes to fashion should be celebrated. It shouldn’t be a case of perfection — either expecting it from ourselves, or from others — but about understanding that we live in an unethical world and, as a result, any small changes made with a view to enacting positive change do have merit.

Sometimes it feels like there’s an inherent tension between wanting to be an ethical shopper and living in an unethical world. Madeleine Somerville describes how this tension in something familiar in the lives of many environmentalists, too. “All of us exist within the very system we hope to change,” she writes for The Guardian. “I use a laptop, a smartphone, internet, electricity. Most of the publications I write anti-consumerism articles for are propped up and paid for by advertisements.” What Somerville illustrates here is that, just because someone advocates for a greener lifestyle, doesn’t mean they have to feel guilty for buying a car. That is simply the world in which we live. And, similarly, believing that the fashion industry needs to be a more ethical place does not mean you need to feel terrible every time you walk into Zara. And, actually, their parent company Inditex scored an A in this year’s Fashion Report.

Unfortunately, ‘ethical’ is kind of a problematic word. The definition for which seems straightforward, but which actually comes with a reality far more coloured by the lens of perspective. Which is to say that one person’s definition of ‘ethical fashion’ might not be the same as mine. That is totally fine and it’s something that we need to learn to be OK with. Because if Fashion Revolution has taught me anything, it’s that I want to feel proud of my clothing. That doesn’t mean that every single thing I own needs to be perfect, just that I want to try and make more choices that reflect my beliefs — within reason and wherever possible. Blogger Kathryn Kellogg has talked about a similar thing with reference to the term ‘Zero Waste’. Since launching her blog, Going Zero Waste in March 2015, Kellogg has been criticised for driving and flying, for example. Vegans have called her out for eating eggs and certain visitors in her home have gone around pointing out anything that’s made of plastic. “They just nitpick every little thing because zero waste sounds like such an ultimatum,” Kellogg says. “My boyfriend thinks that I should change the term, but it’s there, and I don’t know what else to call it.” The point we seem to be missing here is that Kellogg is making a concerted effort to minimise her waste; so why do we often find ourselves getting so caught up in the semantics of it? A lot of it probably has to do with our own guilt — the idea that someone who lives a ‘zer’ waste’ life must be far superior to ourselves. And that’s exactly what we need to move away from.

This is true in the context of ethical fashion, too. Which is why it’s so important to remember that this is a relative term and that what matters most is that we personally feel proud of our choices. If we acknowledge the fact that the world we live in today is unfortunately very unethical — at least for now — then I believe it is easier to move away from the guilt-ridden struggle with perfection. To call yourself an ‘ethical shopper’ then, you don’t need to own a wardrobe that is perfectly ethical in every single way. Just committing to questioning your favourite brands on their transparency can make a major difference. Or aiming to spend a little more on clothing that is well made and will last you for years to come. Whatever your own beliefs and personal ethics then, trying to mirror those in your wardrobe is certainly something to be celebrated. And since I don’t personally believe in perfection, then I guess that’s out of the equation.

This post was originally published on Catalogue.

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