We Need To Talk About The Baptist World Aid Report

by: Rosie Dalton | 7 months ago | Features

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In an industry as flawed as fashion, we need reports like the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Guide. Grading brands from A+ to F on their policies, transparency, worker rights, and environmental management, this initiative can help shed light on the supply chains of big brands. However, it can also fail to consider the whole picture. So, with the 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide now hot off the press, we need to talk about what this report really means.

Historically, Baptist World Aid has graded companies with respect to their labour rights management, but in this year’s report, the organisation expanded its field of reference to include an environmental grade as well – which contributes to 10% of a brand’s overall score. For the company’s sixth annual report, 130 apparel companies (including 480 brands) were graded in total. And more than one-third showed some improvement on their 2018 overall grade.

According to the organisation, “grades in your 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide are a measure of the efforts undertaken to mitigate the risks of forced labour, child labour, worker exploitation, and environmental degradation in supply chains.” But the untold side of this story is that Baptist World Aid doesn’t actually audit each company’s claims in order to validate them.

Even Baptist World Aid concedes, “It is important to note that a high grade does not mean that a company has a supply chain which is free from exploitation. Rather, it is an indicator of the efforts the company is undertaking and the strength of its systems to reduce the risk of exploitation.”

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But efforts to reduce exploitation and actually reducing exploitation are not one and the same. And, as the organisation points out, “we do not do site inspections of suppliers and production facilities and, in some instances, we have relied on audit data provided to us by companies to verify conditions and benefits that workers receive.” 

This reliance on the claims of companies – or lack thereof – can seriously skew the outcome of a brand’s overall grade in the Baptist World Aid report. Some brands that fail to respond in time, for instance, are automatically given an F. Which can be very misleading for consumers, who tend to take these grades at face value. 

The Sydney Morning Herald points out that several brands received an F this year for either failing to respond to the survey or to provide publicly available information on the reporting criteria. They include Bec and Bridge, Bloch, Camilla and Marc, Hot Springs (owners of Rebecca Vallance and P.E. Nation) and Trelise Cooper.

A spokeswoman for P.E. Nation said the brand had chosen not to respond to the survey while it "is on a journey developing ethical and social compliance programmes and to become a more sustainable business". Part of this strategy involves P.E. Nation’s reported plans to release its first range made from recycled materials.

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Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Trelise Cooper described its F grade as "misleading and deceptive. It does unnecessary harm to those who have good practices but choose not to participate in the report," she said. "By participating in this report, we would be endorsing this style of deceptive reporting, which is not based on first hand evidence gathering."

Other brands like Camilla and Marc have also criticised the report for not being nuanced enough to provide a full picture of a brand’s overall supply chain. “[The report’s] nature and format of the questioning does not provide a comprehensive picture [of the company’s practices],” Camilla and Marc said in a statement. The company added that it reportedly monitors “all aspects of our supply chain and we have a zero tolerance for unfair and unsafe working conditions”.

Just as it can be dangerous for brands to make sweeping statements about their supply chain without backing up those claims with evidence, though, so is it misleading to grade those supply chains based on the brand's own statements. If we expect to hold our brands to a high standard of accountability, then our independent auditing systems also need to be upholding similar standards. So nuanced is the fashion industry supply chain that we need to see an equally nuanced approach to reporting as well.  

The Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Guide has become a well respected resource when it comes to fashion brands and their ehical practices. But, while it is of course important to see this kind of independent investigation into fashion industry supply chains, we also need to be aware of the gaps inherent in this kind of reporting. Given how complex the fashion industry is, we need to ensure that these reports are also as nuanced as possible.

You can read the full report here.

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