Should We Really Rate Fashion Companies With Grades? My Thoughts On The Tearfund Ethical Fashion Guide
The Tearfund Ethical Fashion Guide was released on the 10th of April, 2019. As an ethical fashion blogger, it landed in my life in an ethical goodie box full of glorious things: it was a very exciting moment.
The Ethical Fashion Guide, compiled in partnership with Baptist World Aid Australia, grades fashion brands on the ethical practices in their supply chain, with the goal to give shoppers the power to shop ethically and connect with who made their clothes.
In the midst of a busy day, I left the guide until later that night to devour, along with the fair trade chocolate in the goodie box. As I read through the guide, a wave of contrasting feelings flooded over me.
Confusion, hopefulness, frustration, anger, happiness, excitement, and more confusion.
Since then, I have re-read the guide, opened conversation on my Instagram stories, listened in to conversations consumers are having, read review articles, and chatted with Tearfund briefly via email.
I want to preface what I'm about to say by acknowledging I respect and admire all the work that has gone into this guide. The amount of conversation this has started, is phenomenal. The good intentions and mission of the guide is exactly what I am all about, and I forever respect those making big waves and bold moves in the fashion space.
Any conversation about The Ethical Fashion Industry, is good conversation.
In saying this, I have a few hesitations around how this guide is being offered to consumers, how it contradicts other research and facts, and if this is really how we should be encouraging and supporting fashion brands to do better.
Unfortunately, I can say all this, but I also don’t have the answers. I’m not sure myself or anyone else ever will, but it is important we are constantly constructive and critical if we are to progress as a collective and change the fashion industry for good.
These are a few of my unfiltered ramblings… (I’ll try to keep it as short as possible!)
Consumers Are Confused
After posting Instagram stories with a few initial thoughts around the guide, I had many many conversations with Instagram followers and readers of the guide. It was clear people were incredibly upset and confused by the information clash of what the guide was telling them and what they saw in the real world.
Understandably, shoppers can not get their heads around how a brand selling a $4.50 t shirt can be a positive or fair thing. Yet, Kmart (the sellers of $4.50 t shirts) received a B+. Any one who went to university would feel stoked to get a B+ (unless a studious A student!)… so what’s the sitch?
Here’s how brands are graded:
The rating system of this guide assesses the companies in the report from A - F. Five key pillars necessary for a strong labour rights and environmental management system were assessed:
Traceability and Transparency
Monitoring and supplier relationships
Environmental Management (added in 2019)
In my opinion, these areas of assessment make sense. They’re great. It's also awesome to see there is an environmental weight to the grade this year too. Though from my knowledge of the costs of garment production, it looks like Kmart maybe hiding something from Tearfund if they’re selling $4.50 t shirts. It doesn’t add up, and reflects poorly on the way Tearfund audited each brand. I realise they received a higher rating because of their traceability and transparency, but as Tearfund say on their website "When you buy from brands with good grades, you’re supporting fair working conditions and care for the planet."
This statement makes me a little angry to know consumers shopping at Kmart believe they are supporting fair working conditions and care for the planet.
The Title Is Misleading
My suggestion would be to called the guide something like ‘The Good Fashion Guide' rather than ‘The Ethical Fashion Guide'. In its current state, the guide is certainly not a reflection of the ethical fashion brands we should shop at. With a more reflective title, shoppers would then understand the guide is a review of the companies readily available to them, and simply the ‘good’ ones. They’d see it was a helpful tool to assist in shopping at our everyday malls. Labelling it ‘The Ethical Fashion Guide’, seems unfair to both shoppers and brands.
Additionally, if the guide requires a lengthy explanation around the ratings, why it’s called ‘The Ethical Fashion Guide’, and how it should be used in order for it to actually make sense, then it's not serving its purpose. People are perceiving this guide at face value: They are shopping at their 'ethical fashion favourite: Kmart'. This makes me feel kinda sick.
Grades Feel Odd
Rating brands from A to F also seems strange when you consider the complexity of the fashion industry. I realise we have to start somewhere, and I also don’t have a good alternative to offer (sorry!), but having learnt about the layers upon layers of production, and my small but existent understanding of the incredible subjectivity of what is right and wrong in garment production, grades feel odd.
You know what’s even more odd? From my knowledge, the brand themselves are the ones who answer the questions Tearfund asks which contribute to the grade. I realise it may be impossible to personally audit every supplier involved with every brand, but of course a brand is going to answer questions favourably.
Again, I realise we have to start somewhere, and perhaps this annual review is pushing brands to do better in ways I do not understand, but I still feel like it’s a slap in the face to see that Factorie received an A-… meanwhile their store smells like chemicals galore, and I can’t even look at the $2 racks without wanting to throw a rock through their window. To me: that $2 sign represents human and planet exploitation in ways that cannot be praised, no matter the guide or the rating.
You could look at the guide as an encouragement to the likes of Kmart, which is what I think we need to be doing- helping UP the giants, rather than trying to push them down (let's face it, we'll never push them down, so we should help them do better!). But from my perspective, how the guide is marketed, titled, and positioned, means it's viewed as the 'ethical fashion shopping bible', and allowing shoppers to have an excuse to shop at places like Kmart.
On the 10th of April, I watched mainstream shoppers devour the guide with hope and joy that they were shopping at the right places. Perhaps it’s too scary to rate fashion brands harshly, as no one would want to read a guide that says a big fat F to most brands we currently shop at. Would that be too hard hitting?
As I said, I respect the guide, the work gone into it, and the intentions, however, because of the response from the public and general distaste and confusion I have viewed, I wonder how we can best help shoppers to vote with their pocket and encourage supporting those brands doing good. I'm just not sure this guide is helpful for doing that.
These are simply my rambles, and perhaps I have misunderstood everything, but I hope it adds to your perception and understanding of the guide that is currently the ‘talk of the town’ in all spheres.
I will continue to encourage New Zealanders to read The Ethical Fashion Guide, but to take it with a grain of salt, and share it with those who have no clue what ‘ethical fashion’ is. It should be a conversation starter for both consumers and brands, but not the be all and end all.
If you learnt anything at all from this rambling article, let it be this:
You should always be critical about everything. Constructively critical. This includes being critical of my thoughts too ;)
Is this guide something we (New Zealand) should be putting our resources into to change the fashion industry, or is there a better way forward?
Here are a few random ideas floating through my mind that could be helpful alternatives…
Greater education around the true cost of fashion (education focus in schools, not just fabric tech classes)
Government support for fashion brands to have experts monitor and audit their supply chains
Stricter laws in the fashion industry (easier said than done!)
To finish, here are a few facts concluded from the guide: (both encouraging and saddening)
Just 5% of companies could demonstrate they were paying a living wage to all workers at their final stage of production (but 48% of companies have started to develop a living wage methodology)
14% of companies have projects to improve wages in the majority of factories
Only 19% of companies could show that all workers were trained in their rights regarding freedom of association
37% of companies have published a complete list of suppliers at the final stage of production, which has more than doubled since 2013
Worker empowerment was the poorest graded section of the 2019 research, with a media grade of D
32% more companies are tracing inputs suppliers